LIKE all empires, the British Empire too has gone into oblivion. By 1950 the sun had set on the Empire and for London, it was all over. In India, the British rule is now just a dim memory. Nobody has heard of the East India Company or of Robert Clive or Warren Hastings, let alone a Col. James Skinner or a William Sleeman.
What made the British to come to India in the first place? The answer is: trade and commerce. Englishmen came to buy and sell in the 18th century. The aim was to make money. They were corrupt to the core. A report published in 1765 said: “Their (the Britisher’s) transactions seem to demonstrate that every spring of the government was smeared with corruption, that principle of rapacity and oppression universally prevailed, that every spark and sentiment of public spirit was lost and extinguished in the abandoned lust of universal wealth”.
Slowly but surely, the British settled down. To save their trade they conquered territory. Those who came were mostly single. Many Englishmen married Indian girls like Job Charnock who married a 15-year old Hindu girl whom he rescued from the funeral pyre of her dead husband when she was about to commit sati. The British settlers, in the early years, were generally influenced by Indian life-style and culture. Unaffected by racial prejudice, which was yet to make its ugly appearance, sahibs mixed freely with Indians on equal terms. It was only after India became part of the Queen’s Empire that Englishmen living in their cantonment ‘islands’ and civil stations, became aloof and racially prejudiced. Many lived like princes. It is interesting to note that Lord Lytton had 300 indoor servants of whom a third were cooks. For a Viceroy, one supposes, that was par for the course. But practically all British masters had a host of servants.
A Captain in the Army of 1780, on his way to fight in the Mysore campaign was joined by his butler, his cook, his valet, a groom with an assistant, a barber, a dhobi, besides fifteen coolies to carry his luggage, his wines and liquor, live poultry and milch goats! It is anybody’s guess how he fought in the war. When an English officer was appointed to a district, he was helped by a dubash (one who spoke two languages) who saw that he found a good house to live in, the necessary number of servants and when needed, even a “sleeping dictionary”, a native mistress from whom the sahib picked up the local language in bed. Until the end of the 18th century very few European women came to live in India. It was normal practice, therefore, for Englishmen to keep Indian bibis or to set up a zenana. The bibi was an unofficial wife or a long-time consort. An elderly Army Major maintained a zenana of sixteen Indian girls of all sorts and sizes. He reckoned that it was cheaper to keep that many Indian mistresses than to maintain a proper English wife. Resorting to native mistresses was the done thing. William Fraser, a British Commissioner (1830s) maintained seven Indian wives. It was considered not only a piece of erotic expediency but a necessary way to learn the language, customs and manners of the people. Nobody questioned this blatant chicanery.
Towards the beginning of the 19th century British women started arriving in India to find husbands in increasing numbers, which led to the gradual abandonment of the bibis. There was competition among British men to get a British wife, all from mostly the lower classes who had heard of the riches the white men made. Those who couldn’t get husbands for some reason or other, took to prostitution as a “more lucrative and agreeable vocation, than marriage”! Encouragement of prostitution as a matter of fact became official policy. The military authorities considered it dangerous to deny men sexual outlets on the ground that “not to provide women for European soldiers who were drunk and mad with lust would be like letting loose beasts of prey”. In the circumstances white women, chiefly from Eastern Europe, as well as Japanese girls were procured to staff the brothels in Calcutta and Bombay. They were patronised by the better-off sahibs. What is interesting is that in Bombay, the missionaries started what came to be known as their “Midnight Mission” (1890s) to patrol the European brothel area, shouting slogans like: “Be sure, your sin will be found out!” That would lead to frequent brawls, leading to missionaries being assaulted both by the prostitutes and their white clients.
Understandably, the missionary zeal for imposing morality was completely ineffective and the sex trade in different forms continued to thrive. In any case, the escapades of sahibs were of little consequence and did not in any way impair the supremacy of the Raj. Apart from patronising prostitutes, the sahibs dranks heavily, smoked heavily – the hookah was an inevitable part of any British household – and many frequently got into trouble. Many died of intemperance. One British captain in a drunken spree murdered a soldier but was let off lightly, he was just sacked. British women, too, drank heavily. A dozen hottles of Madeira wine cost Rs 40, a dozen bottles of gin cost Rs 15. There was no form of entertainment. In north India the British established the city of Simla where the senior sahibs could relax and have a good time. Clubs were the order of the day and were open only to the Britishers. Entertainment meant watching Indian magic shows like the Rope Trick or jugglery performances. The 17th and 18th centuries were also the eras of thuggery. By 1837 more than 3,000 thugs had been captured and hunged.
Sahibs’ India tells us of another time and place and the role played by those early Englishmen whom destiny arranged to rule India for a hundred years. It tells us of ‘nautch girls’, missionaries, mavericks and even some scholars – and forget Macaulay. It reminds us of a vanished world that was to lead India to political slavery. It is history in the raw, the history of not how battles were fought and won, but of how the sahibs lived in another age. It is not a pretty picture but then, was the Indian picture and better? The sahibs are all gone but memories of their behaviour lingers which is what makes this book such an attention-drawer.
(Penguin Books (India) Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017)