The Tears of the Rajas

The Tears of the Rajas
Ferdinand Mount
Simon & Schuster  773pp  £25

If you want a figure who bestrides the 19th-century history of the British in India from the early Mysore and Maratha wars to post-Mutiny consolidation, they don’t come much larger than Ferdinand Mount’s great-great-grandfather, John (later General Sir John) Low from Clatto in Fife.

Seeking his fortune in Britain’s expanding colonies, the teenage Low joined the East India Company army in 1805, just as the Company was itching to extend its remit outside its Madras, Calcutta and Bombay ‘Presidencies’. Low’s regiment, the 1st Madras Native Infantry, was soon involved in a major scandal when, having had the temerity to revolt, its Indian sepoys were gunned down within the unlikely confines of a fives court in Vellore. 

Two years later, the little known ‘White Mutiny’ reflected tensions between the Company’s and the British Crown’s separate armies. This time British officers in the former mutinied and were dismissed. Low’s Zelig-like presence allows Mount to probe a grey area in the imperial story. 

After a lively military career which also took him to Java, Low became a benevolent though generally accommodating (to the authorities) civil administrator in several princely states including Poona, Nagpur, Oudh and Hyderabad. Mount is at his descriptive best evoking the eccentric Persian-inspired Oudh court at Lucknow, complete with scheming stepmother and oddball Europeans. 

Meanwhile, Low formed marriage alliances with prominent British families in India – the Shakespears, Thackerays and Metcalfes – so around 20 of his kinsmen held high office in the Raj, adding variety to Mount’s story.

Although accounts of senseless massacres abound, the evidence of relentless greed is more telling, as the East India Company, the British Crown and individuals all manipulated the situation for financial gain. Thus, after the 1842 Opium War against the Chinese, Gawlior was subdued, largely because its output of the drug threatened the Company’s monopoly.

Low rose to become the rather detached Military Member of the Governor-General’s Supreme Council, a position he held during the Mutiny, when several of his relations gained notoriety for randomly killing innocent people. Low’s son Robert won more conventional plaudits for his role in the later Relief of Chitral. 

Although strong on colour and narrative drive, Mount is alive to wider historical developments. So we learn about the battle in the civil service between eager modernisers, who wanted to change Indian customs, and more relaxed traditionalists, who were happy to work with the status quo.

Mount sympathises with the traditionalists, arguing that only about a tenth of the poorest peasants were landless serfs. Most of the rest had admittedly often obscure land rights. But the relentless march of capitalism and its bureaucratic certainties could not be resisted. 

This is less a history book than a rattling, but by no means uncritical, panorama of British rule in India. At almost 800 pages it is too long. However it is astute, unfailingly interesting and the illustrations are excellent.

Andrew Lycett is the author of a number of well-received biographies, including Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation now in paperback with Windmilll.

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