The Raj and Us

Table of Contents | Preface | An Indian Childhood | Genealogy | Colonialism and The Raj


[Preface] [Full Circle] [Empire] [The Raj and Us] [India]


"Despite low salaries and hazards to health, employment in India was popular among 18th century Britons. Work was not arduous, hours were short and, with an army of Indian servants at their disposal, East India Company (EIC) agents were able to live like lords, adapting Oriental conditions to suit English tastes and lifestyles. William Hickey, 'the gentleman attorney' and son of an Irish lawyer, vividly describes the opulent lifestyle of the European elite in eighteenth-century Calcutta: their clothes of velvet and lace, their coach and horses, their recreations, the enormous quantities of food--curried meats, rice and pilaus--and liquor consumed, their Indian mistresses, and their servants, some with titles like wig-bearer and houccaburdar. Hickey, by no means a wealthy man, had a staff of 63, including eight table servants, four grooms, one coachman, three grass-cutters for the garden, two cooks, two bakers, one tailor, one hairdresser, nine valets and two washermen." Rozina Vishram
"By the eighteenth century, the custom of employing Indian servants and ayahs in British households (in Britain) had become firmly established. William Hickey, on a visit to London in 1780, brought his 'little pet boy', Nabob, and in 1808 he returned with the 13-year-old 'faithful little Munnoo', whose doting mother had only been induced to part with him after a payment of Rs 500. Munnoo accompanied Hickey into retirement at Beaconsfield, where, under the 'anglifyed' name William Munnew, he was baptized" ...Rozina Vishram
In the 18th century the hedonistic life of the expatriate Briton in India became the norm for HEIC employees.  Massive fortunes were taken home to England, draining both Bengal and the HEIC.  Famine and chaos stalked Bengal. Parliament voted to attempt some control of the HEIC (Regulating Act of 1773).  A further "India Act"  was passed in 1884.  It was to clean up the corruption and meet the stipulated conditions that Cornwallis was sent to India as Governor General in 1786.  The "Cornwallis Code" of 1793 was intended to clean up corruption in the HEIC.  The code had its own unintended problems, but the code and the India Act remained the foundation of the Raj for much  of the next century.  Cornwallis and subsequent Governors General were dictators with minimal control from London.  It was not until the Suez canal (1869) and the telegraph line that London was able to exert any significant control over British Governors General in India. 
With the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and the end of the Napoleonic wars, Britain had no European rival for the conquest of India.  HEIC Governors General generally took a cavalier attitude to previous treaties with Indians and played off one set of Indian states against others.  Between 1815 and 1840 virtually all of India came under the rule of the Raj.  Concurrently, in Britain, people were beginning to rebel against the worst excesses of the Industrial Revolution and the war time suspensions of civil liberties.  Tories were voted out of office in 183x and an age of reform began in England.  
By the 1830's, with the triumph of the Liberals (Whigs) in England and the defeat of the reactionary Tories, a wind of change swept across the Raj.  The  codification of the changes was led by Thomas Babington Macaulay.  Between Macaulay and the Utilitarians -- Mills and others, the legal and educational face of India was revolutionized.  Macaulay was a brilliant polymath in an age of brilliant Englishmen.  Between 1834 and 1838 he shaped the educational policy for India and wrote the Indian Criminal Code -- a tour de force of Enlightenment thinking.  It was Macaulay who relegated Indian history and literature to the ash heap of history, and it was he who was the primary mover to make English the language of official business in India, changing from the previous Persian.  He was, in keeping with his times, an arch racist.  Indians according to Macaulay were habitual liars, evaders, connivers and frauds.  Among their other vices  they were "moral cowards".  It was up to Englishmen to remedy Indian flaws.  This was the high water mark of the age of "reform" in India, and the push for Christianizing India.
The Raj ended in 1947 when an emotionally and financially exhausted Britain split India in three parts and handed over responsibility for governing India to the Nehru's and the Jinnah's -- the Brown Englishmen created by Macaulay's strategies a century or so before 1947.


Words and Meanings

Western Europeans (Portuguese) became directly involved in India half a millennium ago --a few years before the Moghul Empire began.  Britain became deeply involved in India three hundred years ago and was clearly the ruler of much of India more than 200 years ago.  For nearly 500 years Europeans have had to embrace Indian concepts for which there was no European equivalent, and to make up laws and operating rules for themselves (and their subjects) for which there were no European precedents.

Tens of thousands of pages have been written on the effect of the British on India since the 17th century.    Almost nothing is known about the effect of Indians on Britain in the same period.  Those histories are only now being written -- one of the recent books on this subject is summarized here in a fascinating series of lectures. 

 The English language, in particular, has been deeply influenced by this long association.  Words were made up as they were needed, changed meaning as necessary, and fell out of use as conditions changed.  Many of the "colonial" words I used as a child have changed meaning.  Most of them have disappeared with the disappearance of the Raj and Anglo-Indians.  And those last two nouns  themselves have a host of meanings to those of us steeped in "The (British) Raj".  I have attempted to stay away from colonial jargon.  However these two nouns pervade the memoir so I will describe them here.    

The Raj

"The Raj" refers to the rule of Britain in India.  It was pervasive enough to spawn fashions in architecture, governance, language and in virtually every aspect of British life.   

The Raj was the centerpiece of the British Empire.  Officially, The Raj ended in August 1947 when India achieved Independence.  In reality it's influence is still felt in India and Britain and wherever the old British Colonial Service made the laws and Britons influenced customs.  The timing of the beginning of  The Raj varies with historian.   For our purposes we can say The Raj began in Eastern India around 1760 somewhat before the American revolution, and was clearly flourishing in Eastern India by 1781 when  Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown, signaling the victory of the "settlers" of America over the parent country. 

Beginning in the 1770's, Britons were collecting taxes from Indians, making laws for Indians to live by, ruling large parts of India through Indian proxies, and engaging in wars of expansion using Indian soldiers. Britons who had spent most of their lives in India returned to Britain to retire, bringing much of their "Anglo-Indian" wealth and culture and some of their servants with them.  In the late 18th and early 19th century "Anglo-Indians" were (usually wealthy) male Britons who returned from a lifetime of trade in India and retired to a life of country leisure in Britain.  By the mid 19th century the "wealthy Anglo-Indian nabob" riding to hounds was a stock caricature in the London press.  The first item in the side bar illustrates the lavish lifestyle of these early denizens of the Raj.

In the century between about 1780 and 1880 The Raj gradually morphed from the loose (and financially corrupt) rule of British merchant adventurers interested almost totally in trade, to a more tightly controlled, highly structured, hierarchical organization run by The Raj Indian Civil Service.  The members of this once world famous model of incorruptibility became interested almost exclusively in increasing tax revenues, in reducing corruption, in expansion and defense of Empire, in systematizing the acquisition of cheap raw materials for Britain and in creating markets for British manufacturers.   They were banned from any personal involvement in private "for profit" business.  Nevertheless the early extraordinarily ornate trappings of a Briton's life in India became a characteristic of the Raj.  Imperial Raj architecture was developed for all manner of buildings from Railway Stations to the New Delhi capital of India.  Indian army uniforms were redesigned to emulate the ostentation of oriental potentates.  Pomp and Ceremony and class distinctions and racial rankings became trademarks of the Raj..  

I have not said much about the "feel" of the Raj in other parts of the memoir so I have italicized an extract from an article by the travel writer Jan Morris to try to give an idea of what the Raj was like.  No way can I write like Morris - it was indeed as he says!  The full article is here 

"Dead and gone is the British Raj in India, that most glittering jewel in the diadem of Queen Victoria. But close your eyes and think of that lost dominion, and what do you see?

Behind the lances, the cummerbunds and the pompous vice consuls, you see the billowing black smoke of the Punjab Mail, speeding across the Indian plains with its engineers in their cab as swanky as Emperors. You see the immense stations, battlemented like castles or stately as universities. You see the agitated crowds inside, the legless or faceless beggars, the families sitting hour after hour on their piles of string-tied baggage, the hawkers crying, the porters hurrying, the memsahibs clutching their skirts and parasols as they are hastened through the mob toward the first-class carriages. You see the armies of clerks slaving away beneath their twirling fans in the labyrinthine offices of the railway companies. Perhaps you even see young Mr. Kipling, gazing distractedly out of his carriage window as he dreams up another tale for publication in Wheeler's Indian Railway Library. And everywhere, the steam. Fundamental to the Raj's often colorful, often savage, often preposterous, often honorable, often disgraceful mythology (as ambiguous as the heroic-barbaric epics of the Greeks) stands ... the train. "

My grandfather William Blanchette was one of those "engineers in their cab".  My father Eugene Blanchette was one of the manufacturers of the cab.  The two pictures below give some idea of the fashions of the Raj

Bombay Railway Station

A British Raj Officer (Probyn's Horse ~1870)

Anglo Indians

A relatively small number of the hundreds of thousands of Europeans who served in India during the European involvement elected to remain in India.  Generally, by the early 19th century the descendants of these Europeans (mostly British) were prevented from returning to Britain even if they elected to return.  By the end of the 19th century these "Residents of India", these "Domiciled Europeans" of varying European backgrounds, together with the "British" in India, numbered in the region of 100,000.  By the end of the 19th century, the word "Anglo-Indian" gradually changed meaning to refer primarily to this community of India born, European descended, residents of India who maintained a European life style.  They identified with Britain, felt British, and at various times lived under different "laws" from those under which Indians lived.  Our family was part of this Anglo-Indian community.    

In 1947 when India attained independence, the community numbered in the region of 300,000 to 400,000 souls, living mostly in railway towns in Northern India, embedded  in a country of 400 million Indians -- less than one tenth of one percent of the population.  In the half decade between 1947 and 1952 the Anglo-Indian community in India all but disappeared.  Almost all the Anglo-Indians who were able to, left India for England and for countries of the old British Empire.  There are now small, ageing Anglo-Indian communities in Australia, Britain, Canada and the US.  In some instances their children have begun to write Ph. D dissertations on the history of this little known, and quite unique community.  I refer to some of these dissertations in the body of this memoir.   

The Raj and Us-- A Summary

A private British East India Company was formed in London in 1599.  This company, the Honorable East India Company (HEIC), was given an exclusive charter by Queen Elizabeth 1 to engage in trade in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.  Until 1813 when certain changes were  made in its charter, HEIC had the exclusive right to conduct all trade and all travel by British nationals in all of the East. 

In the 17th century it was normal for merchants to retain militia to guard their premises from attack and if necessary to attack rivals.  By 1800 the HEIC Indian militias had grown into three very large armies (Bengal, Madras and Bombay) numbering in the region of 100,000 personnel.  Thomas Blanchette sailed to India in 1817 to join the Bengal European Regiment of the HEIC army.  He married in India, retired from the HEIC army and raised a family in India.  He died in  1863.

Excise duties on HEIC goods (particularly tea to the American colonies) was an important part of Britain's revenue.  The massive smuggling of tea into the Atlantic colonies by Dutch, French and rogue British traders caused the British Parliament to attempt to enforce the excise tax in the colonies.  It was these attempts which led to the "Boston Tea Party" and which united the colonists in their demands for "no taxation without representation".   It was HEIC tea which was dumped overboard

After the American Revolution of 1776, HEIC trade became an even more important source of revenue for Britain.  The British Army (the Royal Army) had already been sent out in small numbers to help the HEIC in the 1750's, but after 1776 and the French-British wars from 1793 onwards, large numbers of Royal Army troops were sent to India.  Robert Roberts was one of these soldiers.  Roberts went to India in 1805 with the 53rd Shropshire Regiment.  He too married in India and produced at least one son.  He was killed in India in 1817 while campaigning in Southern India.   

Between about 1820 and 1857 major attempts were made by the British masters to change (improve!) Indian ways.  Massive and rapid changes were made in law, land use, taxation, land expropriation, education and use of English as the official language.  Christian missionaries who had been banned from India until 1813 were now encouraged to establish English language schools and to "convert the heathen".  These rapid changes led to the seminal event in Raj history which British historians called "The Indian Mutiny".  Robert Robert's son Edward, my great grandfather, and one of his  grandchildren were killed in this uprising fleeing from the "Mutineers".  The mutiny changed everything.  Indians and Britons became deeply suspicious of each other.  Britain's Parliament took over the management of India from the HEIC in 1858.  HEIC essentially ceased to exist.  The pace of social change was slowed to a crawl and virtually halted.  India was rapidly converted into a massive raw material supplier for British manufacturers.  Massive infrastructure projects to increase and transport Indian agriculture were undertaken.  In particular, railway construction was accelerated all over India.  The railways became the symbol of Empire and career of choice for most Domiciled Europeans.  Nearly all my direct male forbears worked for the railway between 1860 and 1949.

Fun Books on The Raj

The best short fiction book on India and the Raj is Kipling's "Kim".  I vouch for its accuracy and atmosphere.  Another book much more in the pot boiler category but quite accurate in its evocation is MM Kaye's "The Far Pavilions".  Her book's location is disguised, but the desert scenes are, in fact, set in the desert areas around Rajputana where I grew up.  I consider "The Far Pavilions" of the same genre as Clavell's "Shogun".

Both Kipling and Kaye spent many years in India and know it well.  Kipling's view is clearly "Imperial".  His view is leavened by his respect for many of the characteristics of India.  I smell and feel "India" when I read Kipling.  Since we are descended from a pair of British soldiers, here is a link to Kipling's poem "Tommy".  Tommy Atkins was the generic name given to British soldiers.  And here is Kipling's "If" -- one of my teenage favorites.  And one more, Gunga Din, another of my favorites.

Kaye's family is one of those 19th and 20th century military Anglo Indian families which spent several generations in India, but kept their roots firmly in England.  The children grew up in England during school terms and in India during "the hols".  Most of their adult lives they spent in India as "covenanted" employees with the military or the Indian Civil Service (ICS). 

The most recent and to me most fascinating book is Dalrymple's "White Moghuls" published in 2002.  It is a serious non fiction work replete with (thousands of!) footnotes and references.  For any one seriously interested in British India in the19th century and willing to plow through a historical love story there is no better book.   When Dalrymple began researching "White Moghuls" he discovered he had two hidden Indian ancestors, Begum Moti Dalrymple and Sophia Pattle.  Dalrymple's book "Delhi -- City of Djinns" is a wonderful description of the current and historical Delhi. 

Don't bother with EM Forster's A Passage to India --he spent a month in India and wrote a book.  It is inaccurate and misleading.   On to India

Table of Contents | Preface | An Indian Childhood | Genealogy | Colonialism and The Raj

[Preface] [Full Circle] [Empire] [The Raj and Us] [India]