Book Reviews - Winter 2019

Where the Sun Finally Set

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A new look at the island empire’s prize possession

By Nisid Hajari | December 3, 2018
Victorians after a tiger hunt in India, c. 1876. (Wikimedia Commons)
Victorians after a tiger hunt in India, c. 1876. (Wikimedia Commons)

The British in India: A Social History of the Raj by David Gilmour; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 640 pp., $35

Among his many vanities, Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, imagined that he had forged an entirely new relationship with Indians by decreeing upon his arrival in 1947 that they would henceforth make up half the guests at any viceregal soirée. One doubts that his forebear David Ochterlony, the early-19th-century British resident in Delhi, would have been much impressed. As David Gilmour informs readers in his authoritative new study of three and a half centuries of British life and rule in India, Ochterlony shared his home with 13 Indian wives, each of whom had her own elephant with which to accompany him on his evening rides.

The British in India teems with such usefully corrective detail. Gilmour, the author of well-regarded biographies of Lord Curzon and Rudyard Kipling, as well as an earlier social history of the Indian Civil Service, has harvested here the fruits of several decades in the archives—plucked from letters and diaries; memoirs published and private; school, club, military, and police records; official memoranda; and more important, the desiderata of the raj, from menus to forestry manuals. In its exhaustiveness, the material does more than attest to Gilmour’s scholarship; it points to the diversity of British life in the empire’s most important colony—a diversity resistant to easy characterization.

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