I am not sure why this should be so, but it is undeniable that the present time is providing something of an intellectual feast for those with an interest in India and its history. Writers and publishers seem to have realized at last that the sub-continent is a treasure house of unknown and exotic stories. Until now, few of these have been excavated from the archives and memoirs in which India is particularly rich, or exposed to the daylight of public consciousness.
Earlier generations of historians and biographers have tended to concentrate upon the big themes of Indian independence and its principal figures, upon accounts of conquest (and usually military glory) or upon analyses of economic exploitation and famine. For some fifty years after India’s independence, save for the older generation of colonial hands like Penderel Moon, serious British writers abandoned India as precipitately as had Britain’s colonial proconsuls. In this, perhaps, a reluctance to pick at the scabs of past colonial misbehavior joined with the prevailing popular revulsion against jingoistic imperialism to create a textual no-man’s land entered more often by novelists than historians.
The last few years, however, have seen writers like William Dalrymple, Ramachandra Guha, Rosie Llewellyn-Jones and Julia Keay begin to foray into this hitherto forbidden territory. They have now been joined in this enterprise of exploration by journalist and novelist Ferdinand Mount, who will be known to many British readers as editor of the Times Literary Supplement and as a columnist in the Daily Telegraph, the Spectator and the Sunday Times. Mount is also a figure in the British Conservative Party, head of Margaret Thatcher’s Policy Unit in the early 1980s and a cousin to the current prime minister, David Cameron.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
He is more properly Sir William Robert Ferdinand Mount, 3rd Baronet, and his pedigree includes a long line of British officials and military officers who served in India over nearly two hundred years. One set of his ancestors was the Scottish Low family, which had its seat at Clatto in Fife. Many of his forbears were remarkable; the Lows, for instance, were intimately connected to the family of the novelist William Thackeray and they produced the Victorian hero Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Low, who relieved Chitral in 1895.
It was not just the men of this family who had talent and character. It was the discovery of a book by his aunt, Ursula Low, published in 1936 and entitled Fifty Years with John Company, which opened Mount’s eyes to his family’s history and led to the writing of The Tears of the Rajas.
His aunt’s book, a work long ignored and derided as an eccentricity by her family, was a biography of her grandfather, General Sir John Low. What staggered Mount about his aunt’s account was her matter-of-fact recording of the massacres, mutinies and mayhem in which her grandfather and many of her relatives had been involved during their colonial careers. For General Sir John Low had, during a career in India that lasted from 1804 to 1858, seen the brutal suppression of the mutiny of his own regiment at Vellore a year after his arrival in India, the “White Mutiny” of European soldiers in the East India Company’s Forces in 1808 (which resulted in the massacre not of the European mutineers but of the Indian soldiers they led) and finally, in 1857, of the Indian Mutiny itself, which erupted at a time when Low was the Military Member of the Governor General’s Council.
More than this, Low, in a largely political career up until the outbreak of the Mutiny, had been intimately involved in policies which led directly to it, including the removal from power of three Indian potentates to whom he was attached as Resident (the Peshwa of Poona, the Raja of Nagpur and the King of Oudh) and the annexation of their lands. He was at one point, in yet another posting as Resident, personally involved in detaching a large chunk of Hyderabad from the lands of the Nizam.
During his service, Low had watched, and other members of his family had been involved in, the British annexations of Sind and the Punjab, the conquest of Gwalior and the disastrous attempt to depose Dost Mohammed, the Shah of Afghanistan, which led to the catastrophe of the 1st Afghan War. Mount’s title is well chosen: Low literally reduced several of his Rajas to tears.
Following his aunt Ursula’s example, Mount makes no bones about revealing the horror which much of Low’s work entailed: the huge military casualties; the massacres of the captured; the mass murder of innocent civilians and the looting of their property; the gory grotesquery of blowing mutineers from the guns. Low himself was not guilty of these deeds (actions that Mount suggests would nowadays be counted crimes against humanity) but others of his family certainly were. His son-in-law, Theophilus Metcalfe, Joint Magistrate at Delhi as the Mutiny erupted, escaped the carnage that eradicated the Europeans in the city and survived to exact a horrible revenge, hanging hundreds of Delhi’s citizens and villagers in the surrounding districts if even the faintest suspicion of disloyalty crossed his, by then, clearly deranged mind. Eventually, his executions without trial became so notorious that even the bloodthirsty post-Mutiny authorities had no option but to send him quietly home to England.
Perhaps more stomach-turning than this, especially to a British reader, are Mount’s revelations of the dishonest policies followed by almost every Governor General of India towards India’s native princes, policies driven by pure greed, conducted with cold ruthlessness in utter disregard of treaties, promises or any code of honor, and hidden beneath layers of hypocritical cant. Much of this has not been made generally known. Few, for instance, in the Far East, will know that as the First Opium War in China ended in 1842, another began in India, for the British conquest of Gwalior was aimed at the control of the opium it grew independently of the East India Company.
The removal of misgovernment was all too frequently the fraudulent public excuse for the imposition of direct rule and the canard of the protection of the peasantry from their own rulers was little more than a front for taxing them more efficiently. Add to this noxious behavior insulting racial pride, ignorance of culture and tradition, and a religious evangelism that persuaded army officers that it made sense to tell their Hindu and Muslim soldiers that they would go to Hell if the wars into which they were leading them resulted in their unconverted deaths, and there seems little need for further explanation of why it all ended in disaster in 1857.
Yet Mount makes it clear that at the personal level there was more to the British in India than this. Amongst the brutality and stupidity there was much bravery and a good deal of compassion. General Low’s brother-in-law, for example, Richmond Shakespear, became a national hero and a knight when in 1838, by the force only of his personality, he rescued 354 Russian slaves from Khiva and returned them to their homeland. Four years later, he repeated this feat of almost single-handed rescue by liberating a large number of British men and women captured in the First Afghan War.
It is Mount’s warm and detailed descriptions of the personalities he examines that turn what would otherwise be a gruesome and depressing tale into such an attractive, spellbinding story. For such a heavyweight book (heavy in terms both of the seriousness of its subject and its bulk of over 770 pages) The Tears of the Rajas is an exceptionally easy read. Mount’s prose is a joy; informal, flowing, persuasive and amusing. The hardback version is beautifully produced and amply illustrated with particularly good portraits and diagrams. I read through it not noticing time passing and was genuinely sorry to put it down.
Ferdinand Mount’s ancestors might not approve of his honesty, but he has done them proud.
Nigel Collett is the author of The Butcher of Amritsar: Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer. His latest book, Firelight of a Different Colour, about Hong Kong actor Leslie Cheung, has just been released. This review was originally published in the Asian Review of Books. It is republished with kind permission.