The Tears of the Rajas: an unflinching account of the greed and arrogance of British imperialism in India
Among the epigraphs that open Ferdinand Mount’s immense historical melodrama are some famous lines from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”
The setting for The Tears of the Rajas is India in the first half of the 19th century, when the British consolidated their hold on the Asian subcontinent. It was not a very pretty business, and Mount does not try to make it so. There are ugly deeds depicted on these pages, which describe the trials and tribulations of several generations of interconnected families – the Lows of Scotland, the Shakespears and the Thackerays – as they confront death, disease and the exotic strangeness of faraway lands.
The fascinating figures Mount describes are not merely of archival interest – he himself is descended from the Lows. There is a further wrinkle: Mount, the former editor of The Times Literary Supplement and a distinguished member of the British political and literary establishment, happens to be the cousin of David Cameron’s mother, whose great-grandfather was William Malcolm Low, an imperial civil servant. Low helped to put down the Indian Rebellion of 1857, participating in events – summary hangings and other brutal reprisals – that Mount says would today be called war crimes.
The author does not shy away from such emotive language as he brings the family skeletons out of the closet. Indeed, there are sections of this book that sound more like the work of a Guardian leader writer than an upright Tory of Mount’s stature. He recounts, in detail, the serial depredations of the East India Company as it tamed, subdued and otherwise extorted various princely states, gobbling up rupees and territory, cotton and opium – these two prized commodities underwrote much of EIC profits. And Mount has few kind things to say about the succession of governors-general who presided over the whole sordid commerce (many of whom knew little about India at all).
But this is only one thread of this sprawling saga. He tracks characters galore – officials, soldiers, wives, husbands and children – as they marry, fight in battles and win glory on foreign fields. In one fine chapter, for example, he details the exploits of Richmond Shakespear as he intrigues in Afghanistan during the disastrous British invasion of 1839. Whatever Mount’s misgivings about imperial folly – the occupation of Afghanistan, the brainchild of Indian governor-general Lord Auckland, ended in disaster for the British – he is half in love with figures such as Shakespear. The romance of their adventures, their dash and pluck, are irresistible to Mount.
Nowhere is this tension between honourable men carrying out ignoble deeds better exemplified than in John Low, the moral centre of Mount’s account. A soldier turned canny operator in the courts of several Indian rulers, Low was a representative figure of a certain type of India hand Mount admires. Such men, Mount writes, “were not romantics (although their deeds might sometimes be spectacular). Rather they prided themselves on an unblinking realism and an undeceived understanding of the limits of imperial pretension”.
Mount sometimes can’t help himself as he salutes their example: “Look at some of them in the engravings and first photographs taken of them in their heyday. How unkempt they are, how wild and shaggy. They have spent a thousand nights under canvas, their complexions are distempered by bouts of dysentery and malaria and every kind of insect; they have unmistakably been through it. How unlike they are to the dashing aristocrats who carved out the Empire in the eighteenth century or the smooth bureaucrats who administered it in the early twentieth. They did not just govern India, they lived it.” Mount’s prose is by turns mordant, droll, cutting and detached.
Low unmistakably went through it as he lived India. He shipped out at the age of 15 and joined the 1st Madras Native Infantry as a lieutenant in 1805. He saw action in India and elsewhere, fighting with the British as they wrested Java from the Dutch in 1811. Afterwards, his unit fought as the British subdued the Maratha Confederacy. He was fluent in several languages, including Persian; few would come to understand India better than Low, even if he helped to depose the native rulers he counted as friends.
After his military career, Low turned to the political side of British rule in India, serving as resident (or envoy) at Hyderabad and Lucknow. He married a sister of Richmond Shakespear, Augusta, who bore him many children, including William Malcolm. As the East India Company pressed its advantage, Low cautioned his superiors against overplaying their hand. At Lucknow, the glittering city in the heart of the Kingdom of Oudh, Low watched with dismay in 1837 as the British interfered by forcing troops on to the kingdom, which would have to pay for such services.
Low warned that “the feelings engendered in their minds by these encroachments upon their dignity may at some future time excite them to such a degree as to make them combine violently against us if a tempting opportunity were to offer: whereas if we only let them alone, there is scarcely a chance of such combines being formed”. He also added: “Not that any of them like us much.”
Time and again, Low would offer such frank thoughts to his colleagues and commanders, only to be rebuffed or ignored. In 1853, Low found himself being pushed to extract unforgiving concessions from the nizam of Hyderabad. Mount trenchantly describes his plight: “John Low, for 40 years the defender of native princes and native rights, was being sent back to Hyderabad to rip off the richest parts of the Nizam’s territory for the British. It was a blatant offence to his instincts and a reversal of all he stood for. Yet he swallowed it.”
But that is the point: he faithfully carried out his duties against an ally who had showed only steadfast loyalty to the British Crown. It was a galling transaction, but Low nonetheless performed his duties. Mount further observes “his instincts had always been to try and assist the old India to live on as undisturbed as far as humanly possible. But time and again, he had been instrumental in sweeping away all the old regimes”. For his service in Hyderabad, Low, in ill health and growing fragile, was rewarded with a position that would prove the summit of his career: a seat on the Supreme Council of India. The pay and the prestige were handsome.
A few years later, India exploded in revolt as sepoys, the native troops that filled the ranks of regiments commanded by European officers, killed men, women and children with impunity. Low’s son, William Malcolm, took up a sword as the British fought back with a brutal fury. Mount’s post-mortem on the causes of the rebellion, “the single worst revolt in Britain’s history”, is excellent, if a little rhetorically overheated. Of the Indians who killed women and children, Mount dubs their impulses as “genocidal”.
“Ethnic cleansing was intrinsic to the programme of the Mutiny,” he writes.
Although the sepoys began the violence, the revolt had a popular backing: “Nobody wanted to confront the thought that it might be a full-blooded national revolt born out of popular revulsion against British rule.” The sepoys had material grievances, but the religious threat to Muslims and Hindus “united all classes and all faiths”. Mount does not flinch from calling the savage and punitive British reprisals war crimes.
The British public wanted nothing less. And John Low found himself (unfairly) on the receiving end of vicious barbs from critics all too eager to cast blame. One sniped that “his mind [was] too feeble to sustain the anxieties of state policy”.
Whatever the causes of the revolt, the East India Company had seen its day. India would be directly ruled by the Crown. Low may have been a reluctant imperialist, but he served the empire to the end.
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Matthew Price is a regular contributor to The National.