An Old Etonian baronet and former Thatcher adviser, the author is a fully paid-up member of Britain’s Tory establishment. So why has he chosen to tell a story of almost unmitigated British plunder, brutality and perfidy across 19th-century India? Perhaps there’s a clue in the dedication to his Indian son-in-law, the left-wing polemicist Pankaj Mishra.
The book’s central thread is the story of Mount’s colonial ancestors, whom he shares with his cousin, Prime Minister David Cameron, the Low family of Fifeshire in Scotland. Three generations of Lows held key positions in the British Indian army and at the courts of various Indian princes.
Mount draws on a rich family archive, carefully preserved by a maiden aunt. What emerges is a touching and often tragic story of the adventure, excitement and financial opportunities offered by empire, but also the perilous travails and high mortality of life in distant tropical lands, separated by a four-month sea journey and absences of several years from children who were sent home to Britain as mere infants. Mount quotes the novelist Henry James on these “drops in the great bucket of the ravenous, prodigious service”, living through “the huge, hot, horrible century of English pioneership, the wheel that ground the dust for a million early graves”.
The Lows were at the heart of the transition of a British trading company into the mighty Raj. We follow their fortunes from the Maratha Wars, through the conquests and annexations in which John Company swallowed the territories of its “subsidiary” allies, native princes who paid extortionate subsidies for the dubious protection of British troops.
At the heart of this story is a great survivor, General Sir John Low, who began his Indian career in 1805 as a humble military cadet in Madras and ended in the key post of Military Member of the Governor-General’s Council half a century later. Along the way, he served as British Resident at a succession of Indian princely courts, most colourful of all the sybaritic kingdom of Oudh (now Awadh), “the garden of India”, which the British annexed on the eve of the Mutiny. Low’s sympathies throughout were with the tearful Indian princes whom the British deposed and whose claims and pretensions he argued with his superiors, though never at the cost of his own career.
Mount is a great storyteller, his prose always colourful and lively, but this massive tome could have done with some ruthless editing, especially of its very detailed sieges and military campaigns. In particular, we might have been spared the horrors of the First Afghan War of 1840 and the sieges of Lucknow and Delhi in 1857, which have already been exhaustively covered elsewhere.
A more serious criticism of this book is its lack of historical context or balance in the sweeping judgments it makes, often on the basis of very flimsy evidence. For example, the British garrison is accused of “war crimes” in its suppression of the Vellore Mutiny of 1806, though no such censure is applied to the mutineers’ massacre of all the sick and wounded in the fort hospital. Again, the accusation of war crimes is levelled at the brilliant imperial proconsul, Sir Stamford Raffles, during his conquest of Java, based solely on an obscure poem by the half-brother of the deposed local Sultan.
Mount’s view may have been skewed by the fact that his forebears served on the military rather than the civilian side of Empire. He makes the surprising assertion that “British observers preferred to ignore the far-flung and hugely energetic networks of the merchant community”, believing “that the rigidities of class prevented the emergence of anything that could be described as an Indian middle class”. But it’s Mount who ignores that rising Indian middle class in his condemnation of what he calls the “Whiggish” interventionism of people like Sir William Bentinck and Thomas Macaulay. Their social and educational reforms were inspired by popular demand from that very middle class of aspirational, newly-Westernised Indians, clustered around the Company’s main urban trading centres at Bombay, Calcutta and Madras.
Typically, Mount dismisses the reformist approach to India advocated by the brilliant utilitarian philosopher James Mill in his monumental History of India, on the grounds that Mill “had never visited India, knew no Indians and no Indian language”. He seems to be unaware that Mill enjoyed a close friendship and intellectual camaraderie with the most outstanding Indian intellectual of his time, Raja Ram Mohun Roy, who arrived in London in the 1830s to canvass support for precisely the sort of “Whiggish interventionism” that Mount so dislikes. It was that liberal interventionism by Governor-General Bentinck which produced major reforms such as the abolition of sati or widow-burning, which astonishingly finds not a single mention in this entire book. Nor is there any reference to such radical British innovations as a civil service open to Indians by competitive examination and a judicial system and new penal code firmly based on equality before the law, regardless of caste, religion or race.
When it comes to the Great Mutiny of 1857, Mount subscribes to the conventional Indian view that it was a war of national independence. His evidence for this, curiously enough, is, first, that the mutineers threw open the prisons and, second, that they massacred all the Christians they could lay their hands on, Indian or Western, men, women and children. While he details bloodthirsty British reprisals, he skims over incidents like the horrific Cawnpore massacres of British women and children, which fuelled British jingoism and xenophobia. Nor does he explain why the overwhelming majority of British Indians, and especially the new urban middle class, stayed loyal to the Raj. Of course, he’s right to assume that people prefer self-rule to foreign occupation. But were the British really that much more alien to the subcontinent than the often oppressive Persian, Afghan and Turkoman elites whom they supplanted?
Ultimately, Mount’s own nostalgic tears for India’s doomed feudal order blind him to the wider historical imperatives that drove territorial expansion by the East India Company, contrary to the expressed wishes and financial constraints of its directors back home. Following the collapse of the Mughal Empire, for which the British bore no responsibility, the subcontinent had disintegrated into a battleground for competing regional warlords. It was a political vacuum which the Company would have ignored at its peril, especially when the Rajas whom it preferred to prop up proved so inept at managing their own kingdoms.