04/09/2005 – Copyright The Telegraph
Britain embarked on its great Indian adventure of the 18th and 19th centuries reluctantly. The government was forced to step in after its licensed entrepreneurs of the East India Company were found to be lacking in both efficiency and scruples. Some had come to look upon India as “the land of the pagoda tree” that only had to be shaken to rain money. In just two years, from 1778-80, Sir Thomas Rumbold, governor of Madras, amassed a fortune of £750,000, much of it bribes from the Nawab of Arcot, whose interests were, in turn, defended by the company.
While the company struggled with wars and debt, a new class of self-made gentlemen, the nabobs, returned with their trunks stuffed with riches. After the Mutiny of 1857, the Crown replaced the company as the ruling authority in India, and under Queen Victoria 41,000 Europeans held sway over a population of 15 million.
Some of the British soldiers were mercenaries, some had enlisted into the company’s forces, and others served in regular regiments posted to India. Some came from the gutter and some from the gentry. Some were desperate to serve in India and others had no choice.
“Sahib” was the title by which European men were addressed. If you added “pucka” from the Hindustani word for ripe, or cooked, you had pucka sahib: strictly, a well-cooked gentleman. Many were over-cooked and expired in the unaccustomed heat. Relatively few were killed in battle, but the mortality rate among Europeans, mostly due to cholera, was 69 in 1,000 – more than five times that of the Manchester slums. Of the company’s officers from 1760 to 1834, only 10 per cent survived to draw pensions.
Military society was a mixture of contrived activity and crushing boredom. Newly arrived officers – “griffins” – were confused by the contrast between overindulgence and elaborate social protocol. Officers found distraction in tiger hunting and pig-sticking; most soldiers stuck to the traditional pastimes of drinking and whoring. In 1833, the 710 men of HM’s 26th Foot consumed 5,320 gallons of arrack, 209 of brandy, 249 of gin and more than 500 of beer. By 1899, 361 of every 1,000 men admitted to hospital were suffering from venereal disease.
Suicide was common. Even Robert Clive attempted to shoot himself. European women were scarce. Lt Kendall Coghill wrote that “every woman was surrounded by single men and comforted by learning that if in the war she lost her husband plenty more would take her on. Most of them were engaged two or three deep ‘on the off chance’.” General Sir Neville Lyttleton recalled how a widow was proposed to by a colour sergeant a few hours after her husband’s funeral. She burst into tears because on the way home from the cemetery she had accepted an inferior proposal from a corporal.
Not everyone approved of the memsahibs. In the Georgian era, relationships between the races were fairly relaxed. Attitudes changed in the 19th century, and one officer had no doubt what was to blame: “Every youth, who is able to maintain a wife, marries. The conjugal pair become a bundle of English prejudices and hate the country, the natives and everything belonging to them.”
Such intimacy as still existed between races seemed all but destroyed by the Mutiny of 1857. But “on either side of this shocking and traumatic episode there were often close and cordial relations between British and Indian soldiers, and a sense of shared endeavour curls across this period like that most pervasive of Indian scents, the smell from cow-dung fires…”
What the British and their Indian counterparts accomplished in battle was remarkable, forging more than 600 princely states into a vast nation. Holmes lets others debate the legacy of Empire. His role is as a passionate and richly entertaining champion of the rank and file.
Sahib ends with the pathetic story of Thomas Finn, a 15-year-old of HM’s 64th Foot, who won the VC at Lucknow but ended his days in a workhouse. “A Napoleonic general once told a British officer that if his soldiers were as good, he would look after them better,” writes Holmes. “That is no unfair comment on the men who won and held India… They deserved better of the land that bore them.”