Barbarians Thundering at the Frontiers

The Boer War and the Indian Raj

The Boer War blighted the end of Queen Victoria’s life and tarnished the gilt of empire during her son’s reign. Despite outbursts of jingoism at home and expressions of loyalty in the dominions, there was widespread unease that David seemed to be matched against Goliath and that white men should be fighting one another on the veldt. The British gave every indication of having provoked the conflict. The Afrikaners saw it as the bloody “last act in the great drama”1 of A Century of Wrong—the title of Jan Smuts’s pamphlet, written on the eve of hostilities in September 1899, denouncing the protracted British attempt to crush Boer liberties. Moreover, the war appeared to stem from the root of all evil. Politicians such as David Lloyd George, journalists such as W. T. Stead and economists such as J. A. Hobson all accused their government of resorting to arms from a lust for gold. Its aim, they said, was to monopolise the mines, to secure cheap black labour for the owners and to enrich their financial backers. A number of critics went further, some odiously so. Henry Hyndman, a silk-hatted, frock-coated Old Etonian who allegedly became a socialist “out of spite against the world because he was not included in the Cambridge [cricket] eleven,”2 saw the war as part of a conspiracy to plant “an Anglo-Hebraic Empire in Africa.” Its beneficiaries would be the Randlords—generically pilloried as Hoggenheimer—and its capital would be “Jewhannesburg.”3 If the cause of the war appeared disreputable, its course was plainly disastrous. An imperial army of 250,000 men, swollen by contingents from Canada, Australia and New Zealand, took almost three years to subdue a colony of farmers whose population, as Lloyd George scornfully remarked, did not exceed that of Flintshire and Denbighshire. During this time the Boers inflicted a series of reverses on their foes so humiliating that Lord Salisbury wondered whether he might not do better with “an army of Red Indians.”4 To defeat the Boers the British employed against innocent civilians what the Liberal leader Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman called “methods of barbarism.”5 In fact, the South African conflict was the greatest catastrophe to overtake the Empire since the loss of the American colonies.

Yet the war was not the culmination of a hundred years of creeping aggression, as Smuts asserted in his war cry. Nor was it the product of a capitalist, still less a Jewish, plot. Of course many mining and railway interests (harmed by the new line to Delagoa Bay) did want to modernise the Transvaal. In particular, they wanted a streamlined, low-cost economy, something unlikely to be achieved in a “mediaeval race oligarchy”6 led by a “palaeolithic”7 President. They therefore urged the righting of Uitlander wrongs and hoped that a British South Africa would swallow the Boer republics. But Marxist historians are incorrect to claim that “the motive force for the Boer War was gold.”8 Some “gold-bugs,” having learned their lesson from the Jameson Raid, sat on the fence. Others preferred peace and profit with Kruger. What is more, Salisbury and Chamberlain, like their new South African High Commissioner, Sir Alfred Milner, were primarily concerned with political and strategic power. Control of all South Africa was essential, they believed, for without it Britain would lose the key naval base at Simonstown. This sat astride one of the world’s most vital trade routes and, as the War Office said, it would be impossible “to create a Gibraltar out of the Cape Peninsula.”9

Milner, in particular, was a “British Race Patriot”10 with a passion for imperial consolidation. Half German and wholly unscrupulous, he had been brought up in shabby-genteel circumstances, had won nearly all the glittering prizes at Oxford and had equipped himself for proconsular life by stints as a barrister, a journalist and a civil servant. Before becoming chairman of the Board of Inland Revenue at home, Milner had administered the finances of Egypt. He seemed to be a model of moderation, “the safe man with the crossbench mind.”11 But underneath his dignified exterior—the tall spare figure, narrow moustached face, close-set grey eyes and winning smile—seethed an ardent spirit. Chamberlain later wished that he would remember the advice given to the lady whose clothes had caught fire, “to keep as cool as possible.”12 In London Milner kept a secret mistress with whom he went on bicycling expeditions and, assisting with the Pall Mall Gazette’s crusades, he would exclaim: “What larks!”13 In Cape Town he pursued imperial interests in “the spirit of Torquemada, ruthless, unbending, fanatical.”14 He learned Dutch, which enabled him to misunderstand the Afrikaner position comprehensively. He notified Boer leaders that war must come.15 He told Chamberlain that the High Commissionership was “a fighting post.16 Milner also helped to convince the Colonial Secretary that the mineral-rich Transvaal, perhaps assisted by Germany or even France, represented a threat to British supremacy in South Africa. In view of the Lilliputian dimensions of the Boer republics this fear might seem absurd. But empires tend to suffer from a paradoxical form of paranoia: anxieties about their vulnerability increase in proportion to their size. As Stead shrewdly remarked, the more wolfish John Bull became the more he worried that “people will mistake him for a sheep.”17

Since the Jameson Raid, however, the Transvaal had been purchasing “arms and ammunition enough to shoot down all the armies of Europe.”18 And Kruger’s answer to the question of why he needed such an arsenal was scarcely reassuring: “Oh, Kaffirs, Kaffirs,—and such-like objects.”19At the very end of the last year of peace William Butler, now the Commander-in-Chief of British troops in South Africa, saw another fearsome portent in the sky. He witnessed a total eclipse of the moon, which “seemed to have been washed over with a blood-stained cloth” and shed such an eerie light that it made the earth look “like a nocturnal graveyard.”20 But in 1899 Milner, whom some saw as an ironclad Bartle Frere and others as a pocket Bismarck, needed no astral help to plot a course towards aggression. His tactic was to use the Uitlanders to win control of the Transvaal, either by securing them votes or by resorting to force. During a conference at Bloemfontein in June, which one of Milner’s officials likened to a “palaver with a refractory chief,” Kruger perceived their intent. With tears in his eyes he exclaimed, “It is our country you want.”21 The Prime Minister and the Colonial Secretary would have preferred the President to capitulate. But as Salisbury said, they were forced to confront Kruger on “a moral field” skilfully prepared by Milner and “his jingo supporters.”22 Nevertheless, the High Commissioner, who did more than anyone to start the war, was only just in advance of his political masters at home. Chamberlain, who wanted a convincing casus belli, endorsed his inflammatory dispatch asserting that the Uitlanders were being treated as helots. Salisbury let Milner know that “the real point to be made good to South Africa is that we not the Dutch are Boss.”23

Salisbury and Chamberlain were worried, though, that Milner’s pugnacity would offend public opinion at home. So when the Transvaal’s President, recognising that hostilities were unavoidable, issued an ultimatum in October 1899, the British Prime Minister was glad to have been relieved of the task of explaining to his people why they were at war. By allowing Britain to present itself as the victim of aggression Kruger sacrificed a permanent propaganda advantage for a temporary military gain. The Boer plan of campaign, as formulated by Jan Smuts, was to mobilise the nation (the two Boer republics could muster 45,000 armed burghers) and thrust into Natal before British reinforcements arrived. Smuts, successively lawyer, soldier and statesman, told Kruger that their country was facing “a terrible blood-bath, from which our people will emerge either as an exhausted remnant, wood-cutters and water-carriers for a hated race, or as victors, founders of…an Afrikaner republic…stretching from Table Bay to the Zambesi.”24Victory would occur, he hoped, through foreign help and British demoralisation. However, Boer strategy, after triumphant advances which left British garrisons besieged in Mafeking, Kimberley and Ladysmith, soon veered towards the defensive. The Boer high command, led by Piet Joubert, was cautious—only one general had any real military knowledge, and he had gleaned that from Carlyle’s life of Frederick the Great. Still, their opponents proved even more inept, so much so that it was rumoured among Boers that shooting a British general carried the death penalty. And Milner privately lamented the evident immunity of the most senior officers to enemy bullets.

Such a gallery of martial grotesques has proved impervious to historical rehabilitation. There was the bovine Buller, with his ox carts full of domestic accessories, including a sumptuous kitchen and an iron bathroom. There was the cadaverous Gatacre (known as “Back-acher”) who wore out his soldiers with harangues and fatigues. There was the eye-glassed Warren, who thought his men ought to be “introduced”25 to the enemy before being permitted to fight. There was the insomniac Hart, whose fatal manoeuvres reflected, said one subaltern, “the fidgety unrest of a doting old fool.”26 Nothing was more astonishing, wrote Leopold Amery in The Times History of the War in South Africa, than the contempt which the Boer generals showed for their adversaries except the fact that it was almost invariably justified. Amery blamed the promotion by seniority of parade-ground officers who had won cheap laurels by “shooting down ill-armed savages.”27 Now they exposed their own troops to massacre. They completely underestimated the lethal impact of modern firepower, which had been displayed so decisively at both Majuba and Omdurman. Here was a disastrous failure to recognise the changed nature of warfare, a failure which boded ill for any greater test of imperial strength.

No battle illustrated Britain’s military shortcomings more dramatically than the third defeat of “Black Week” in December 1899. It took place at Colenso, a cluster of corrugated-iron shacks around a railway station twelve miles south of beleaguered Ladysmith. This sordid dorp was a paltry monument to the Bishop but its setting was sublime. Looped by the Tugela River, a silver serpent slithering down from the Drakensberg, purple in the distance, Colenso was overlooked from the north and west by a semi-circle of copper-coloured kopjes, six miles in diameter, rising in tiers like seats in an amphitheatre. Its pit, to the south, consisted of open veldt rolling down to the river in green-brown billows. Into this arena, following the railway line towards Ladysmith, marched Sir Redvers Buller’s army, up to its khaki waist in powdery grey dust. It consisted of eighteen thousand men, the strongest force Britain had put into the field since the Crimean War: infantry, cavalry, guns, ox wagons, mobile kitchens, mule-drawn ambulance carts and camp followers of all sorts. The troops lusted for glory. They had full confidence in their gallant, if taciturn, chief, whose leadership qualities Gladstone had rated above those of Joshua. They rejoiced in the jaunty nicknames of their various units—“Bethune’s Buccaneers,” the “Imperial Light Looters” and, because the South African Light Horse sported cocks’ feathers in their smasher hats, the “Pipe-Cleaners.”28 Meanwhile, the Boers, about five thousand shabby, whiskery men commanded by one of the best of their young generals, Louis Botha, were silent and invisible in their fortified position across the Tugela. The steep-banked river was their moat. The scrubby ridges were their parapets. The rocky earth hid their trenches and artillery emplacements. In fact Botha had transformed the Colenso heights from colosseum into capitol. He rightly expected that his enemy would fail to recognise this and try to stage a spectacular gladiatorial performance. True to form, Buller neither probed the Boer lines nor launched a serious flanking attack. He ordered a long-range bombardment, but the crashing salvos did nothing except throw up clouds of red dirt mixed with green lyddite fumes. Then followed a frontal assault.

It proved fatal from the start, for Colonel Long’s 12-pounder guns advanced too far ahead of the infantry. They presented Boer marksmen with a perfect target spot-lit by a hot sun in the limpid morning air. When the Mausers opened fire it was as though “someone had pressed a button and turned on a million electric lights.”29 With a staccato crackle, myriad tongues of flame darted from the trenches. Boer bullets flew “in solid streaks like telegraph wires.”30 Using smokeless cartridges, the riflemen were hard to spot. They cut the British gunners and their horses to ribbons. They also inflicted terrible punishment on Hart’s Irish brigade, which had marched forward in close order with fixed bayonets and, unable to locate a ford, was confined by an oxbow in the river. Buller’s rightward push, which might have won him a vantage point from which to enfilade the Boer redoubt, fared no better. Before noon, unwilling to countenance further carnage, he withdrew, leaving ten guns to the triumphant Botha. The Boers had suffered 29 casualties, of whom 7 died, whereas the British lost 143 killed and 1,002 wounded. Comparing the Dervish defeat on the Nile to the Afrikaner victory on the Tugela, General Lyttelton said: “In the first, 50,000 fanatics streamed across the open regardless of cover to certain death, while at Colenso I never saw a Boer all day till the battle was over and it was our men that were the victims.”31 The Empire’s enemies rejoiced: when told that the cream of the British Army had gone to South Africa, the American artist James McNeill Whistler retorted, “Whipped cream.”32 But at home the cruel climax to Black Week induced “hysterical alarm.”33 On the first day of 1900 one trenchant commentator warned that unless root-and-branch military reforms took place “the historian of the future will have to summarise the causes of the decline and fall of the British Empire in three pregnant words—suicide from imbecility.”34

On the evidence of Sir Redvers Buller’s proceedings in the aftermath of this bloody repulse, that was hardly too harsh a verdict. He at once telegraphed London to say that Colenso was impregnable to anything but a blockade. He also heliographed Ladysmith advising Sir George White to “burn your ciphers, destroy your guns, fire away your ammunition, and make the best terms possible.”35 These were tragic testaments not to a loss of soldierly nerve but to a lack of military intelligence. Buller also lacked drive for his energy had been sapped by his appetite. As William Butler said, Colenso was lost on the war-game fields of Aldershot, where Buller had apparently “regulated the movements of his brigade by the direction which the refreshment carts took in the commencement of the fray.”36 So White kept the flag flying while Buller was superseded as Commander-in-Chief. But Buller was left to persist with those valiant blunderings on the Tugela, notably at Spion Kop and Vaal Krantz, which earned him the nickname “Sir Reverse.” Field-Marshal Lord Roberts, with Kitchener as his Chief of Staff and copious reinforcements, many of them volunteers from the dominions, sailed to replace him. A “cute, little, jobbing showman,”37 in Wolseley’s opinion, the dapper “Bobs” became the national saviour. Despite the shock of having lost his only son at Colenso, he acted decisively to exploit the Boers’ defensive strategy. Roberts advanced from the Cape, outflanking the Boers with forty thousand men and one hundred guns. It was a dreadful march, accompanied by surprise attacks, sandstorms, rain, cold, hunger, enteric fever, plagues of flies and the unbearable stench of decomposing horses, mules and oxen. As Kipling wrote:

The trek-ox when alive can haul

Three-quarters of a ton per head.

But he can shift you camp and all,

Once he is dead.38

Despite a hopelessly disorganised transport system, Roberts’s juggernaut was irresistible.

First he relieved Kimberley where Rhodes, guarding his assets, had tried to keep calm by reflecting on “what the old Roman emperors must have felt when (as often happened) their legions were scattered.”39 Then Roberts trapped four thousand Boers under Piet Cronjé at Paardeburg. Kitchener tried to smash their laager, earning a reputation for being “the most talented murderer [of his own men] the war has produced.”40 But Roberts forced a surrender that was the turning point of the conflict. Buller liberated Ladysmith, which the Boers had hoped would be another Yorktown—its defenders, who had survived on a Bovril-like soup called Chevril, so equine that it was said to kick, were as “gaunt as ghosts.”41 Roberts marched into Bloemfontein, its fall celebrated with a dinner at which Kipling proposed a toast to President Kruger, “who had taught the British Empire its responsibilities.”42 Among other manifestations of delight was a booklet entitled Thrilling Experiences of the First British Woman relieved by Lord Roberts.On 17 May 1900 Mafeking was relieved. The siege of this dusty railway junction on the veldt had been elevated into an epic of heroism, thanks in part to Colonel Baden-Powell’s plucky “Kaffirgrams”: “All well. Four hours bombardment. One dog killed.”43When news of its relief reached England flag-waving crowds celebrated with such wild abandon that they gave a new word to the language, “mafficking.” In London and elsewhere “streets were blocked by a shouting, singing, cheering multitude, composed of both sexes and all classes—a multitude that seemed literally to have gone mad with joy.”44 Actually the danger to Mafeking had been slight (though under Baden-Powell’s regime seven hundred Africans died from starvation) and its strategic importance had been exaggerated. Afterwards Kitchener liked to explain that the town had been held “because the War Office believed that it was the nearest sea port to Pretoria.”45 But the public demanded a catharsis in the form of a carnival. This was not an “orgy of rowdyism”46 stirred up by jingoists of press, pulpit, stage and soapbox, though they undoubtedly contributed to war fever in the following days. It was a spontaneous response to glad tidings after the despair of Black Week, a proclamation of imperial triumph and an anticipation of final victory. Roberts apparently achieved that when he marched into Pretoria in June. Despite large-scale surrenders, though, the exultation was premature. For the struggle had merely entered a new and more deadly phase.

The Boers embarked on a guerrilla campaign in the real hope of exploiting their unrivalled mobility and the vain expectation of capitalising on the profound international sympathy felt for their cause. Scattered units of mounted infantry raided British outposts, ambushed columns, plundered convoys and cut railway lines. They also carried out major forays into the Cape Province which, torn between loyalty to the Crown and blood-brotherhood with the Boers, remained largely passive. The commandos were led by commanders of genius such as Koos de la Rey, the Stonewall Jackson of the resistance, and Christiaan de Wet, whose mastery of butcher-and-bolt tactics won the admiration of the British themselves. One of those pursuing him, Walter Guinness (later Lord Moyne), wrote in June:

it is like catching quicksilver with a pair of tongs…My belief is that the war in the Free State has barely begun as yet. De Wet is a great deal cleverer than our generals, and only fights when he can injure us with impunity. When the papers say that the Boers “ran away” they express the fact that they have the sense to clear out when they have attained their object…unless we burn every farm in the country, and Europe will hardly stand that, this state of things will go on indefinitely.47

Roberts was less perceptive. Belying his reputation for leniency, he initiated a scorched-earth policy so ferocious that it seemed set to expunge (though it actually stiffened) resistance. After Kruger’s autumn escape to Holland, “Bobs” returned to England convinced that Kitchener would quickly put an end to so-called “bitter-enders.” This was the common opinion, which Salisbury had just exploited to win the Tories another term in office at the so-called “Khaki” election. But Kitchener was hampered by the fact that the “Boers are not like the Soudanese who stood up for a fair fight, they are always running away on their little ponies.” He hunted them relentlessly, commandeering ambulance horses, employing five thousand so-called “Judas Boers” and arming thirty thousand Africans in what was supposed to be a white man’s war. He harried his own forces almost as much as those of the enemy, earning the title “K of Chaos.”48 He built a chain of blockhouses, eventually numbering eight thousand, and connected them by barbed wire. But the Boers usually managed to break though this cordon and escape, blending into the background like guerrillas throughout the ages. They were sometimes fighters, sometimes farmers—fish swimming in the sea of the population. With the full approval of Salisbury, who favoured the branding of recalcitrant Boers, Kitchener tried to drain the sea.

Not so much a fully fledged martinet as an embryo dictator, he destroyed thirty thousand farms and dozens of villages. He burned crops and cut down trees. He killed or confiscated livestock. This not only deprived the burghers of food and shelter, it drove 160,000 of their wives and children into the fifty concentration camps established along lines pioneered by Roberts but not, apparently, in imitation of those created in Cuba by General “Butcher” Weyler. Here 28,000 inmates, mostly children, succumbed to disease and malnutrition caused by conditions almost as bad as in the separate camps set up for Africans, where the mortality rate was probably even higher. Then and later, attempts were made to justify the camps or at least to mitigate their horrors. They were said to be a military necessity. The female of the species had to be quelled too: according to Rhodes’s brother Frank, “as we approached farms the women hopped into bed with Mauser rifles, a curious choice but a fact.”49 In any case, some Boer women and children lived worse at home than in the camps and all would have suffered more on the veldt. Sanitary conditions in British barracks and military hospitals were equally poor. The Boers were their own worst enemies, dosing themselves with “Kaffir” remedies such as dog’s blood and horse dung, but the British did their best to help them. In The Times Flora Shaw even rejoiced in “the happy faces of the thousands of children who cluster round the schools and soup kitchens.”50

Yet for all the special pleading there are few uglier blots on the imperial escutcheon than these camps. In them the authorities deemed mattresses, candles and soap luxuries; the families of “bitter-enders” received less food than those of “hands-uppers” (burghers who surrendered); the children looked like “little old men and women.”51 Altogether a sixth of the Boer population died in what the British claimed to be places of refuge, a claim which Stead denounced as “the very superlative of audacious hypocrisy.”52 There were further accusations of deliberate genocide, a planned massacre of the innocents. These were wide of the mark. However, Lloyd George plausibly charged Salisbury’s government with carrying out what was in effect “a policy of extermination,” one that would rouse “the deepest passions on the human heart against British rule in Africa.”53 Emily Hobhouse, a relief worker who investigated the camps, also talked of “a war of extermination.”54 Thanks to her and others, conditions improved. But the conflict as a whole became more vicious. Atrocities, reprisals and executions took place on both sides. Africans were sometimes perpetrators, usually victims, for the Boers “look upon Kaffirs with extreme contempt and treat them like dogs.”55 Chivalry was in short supply: when British officers wore out the dance floor at the Bloemfontein Residency they sold the old floorboards for 1s 6d each to incarcerated Boer women to make coffins for their children. The rules of war were freely broken: even Conan Doyle acknowledged that the British fired dum-dum bullets, which “were never intended to be used against white races.”56 The quality of mercy was thin on the ground: Irishmen “skewered”57 Irishmen fighting opposite and the story was told of one, belonging to a regiment that took no prisoners, who “went in with steel. The Boer threw down his arms and held up his hands and prayed for mercy—said he was a Field Cornet. The Irishman said it would make no difference if he were a whole bloody brass band and he had got to have it.”58 All in all, this was not “the last of the gentlemen’s wars,”59 let alone (in Churchill’s phrase) the last enjoyable war or (G. K. Chesterton’s verdict) a very cheerful war. It was more akin to total war. Kipling called it a “dress-parade for Armageddon.”60

Ironically, no one was keener to end it than the Boers’ most implacable foe, Lord Kitchener himself. Milner, by contrast, who deplored the “barbarous” treatment of the Boers, demanded their unconditional surrender. He detested Kitchener’s “absolutely autocratic” manner, despised his “very crooked”61 methods, and resented his attempts to find a compromise. But short of exiling half the population overseas, something he considered, the general could see no end to hostilities. The best chance was to seek a peace of reconciliation whereby the Boers lost their independence but gained a stake in the British Empire as well as mastery over the black man. This might prove acceptable to the exhausted burghers, who were harassed by Africans, anxious about their families in the camps and on the veldt, and pitiably short of horses, ammunition, supplies and clothes. Many were reduced to wearing garments of sacking, blanket or green baize, and the skins of deer, leopard, monkey or sheep—those who donned stolen British uniforms were liable to be shot on the spot. Commenting on the ragged, wretched state of his division, De la Rey himself acknowledged that they had reached the bitter end.

Peace terms were hammered out inside a marquee at Vereeniging, a small town just south of Johannesburg, in May 1902, just after Rhodes’s demise. (His famous last words were “So much to do, so little done!”62 But cynics asked what he hoped to gain by dying at this point and suggested that he had really said, “So many done, so few to do.”) It was agreed that the Boers would become subjects of the new King, Edward VII, and would soon, like Canadians and Australians, obtain self-government. They would also receive an amnesty and £3 million to rebuild their devastated land; Milner wanted to haggle but Chamberlain overruled him, pointing out that the war was costing a million pounds a week. The question of giving Africans the vote was postponed until the Transvaal and the Orange Free State got independence. Chamberlain had promised not “to purchase a shameful peace” at the expense of “the coloured population”63 but Milner had privately noted that to win the game in South Africa “You have only to sacrifice ‘the nigger’ absolutely.”64 In fact, British Liberals did try to safeguard “African interests.”65 Nevertheless, Africans were the prime victims of the Vereeniging settlement, being subjected to a system of segregation which was eventually transformed into full-blown apartheid. Kitchener was the chief beneficiary. Parliament gave him a £50,000 grant, which he promptly invested in Rand gold shares. He returned to England in triumph, taking with him masses of loot, including life-sized statues of Kruger and other Boer leaders which he had removed from public squares in Bloemfontein and Pretoria. He planned to erect them in his park, but the Colonial Office eventually made him send them back to South Africa.

Worthier memorials to the Boer War went up all over Britain during the next few years, among them, in Exeter, an equestrian statue of Buller which bore the legend “He saved Natal.” Some nine hundred monuments, premonitory symptoms of the commemorative epidemic that occurred after 1918, honoured the twenty thousand patriots who had given their lives in the defence of country, empire and civilisation. Lapidary inscriptions to that effect probably also expressed the common view throughout the dominions. There many believed that the blood of Boer War martyrs was the seed of both colonial nationhood and imperial consolidation, then by no means a contradiction in terms. At home the victory was hailed as a vindication of British enlightenment over Boer obscurantism. Even the radical Fabian Society cheered the outcome of this “wholly unjust but wholly necessary”66 war, having adopted Bernard Shaw’s “extra-ultra-hyper-imperialist”67 manifesto which declared that the British Empire, as the nearest thing to a world government, should rule backward societies in the interests of progress. This was a classic notion which, with appropriate variations, had (and still has) its proponents in the United States. Despite widespread American sympathy for the Boers, shared partially by Theodore Roosevelt and wholly by his cousin Franklin, the President had complete faith in the Anglo-Saxons’ civilising mission and thought it to the “advantage of mankind to have English spoken south of the Zambesi.”68 Roosevelt considered the Boers to be as medieval as the Spaniards, against whom John Bull had given Uncle Sam warmly appreciated moral support in 1898. So, mindful of American business and strategic interests too, he reciprocated, even covertly providing detectives from the Pinkerton agency to sniff out Irish–Boer collaboration. The other great powers, though their populations were overwhelmingly indignant about the Lion’s mauling of the Springbok, resisted any temptation to intervene. This was an implicit tribute to Britain’s continuing strength, which actually increased thanks in part to further imperial integration in matters of defence and trade. Despite the worst setbacks in the greatest war the country had fought since Waterloo, declared the National Review, no foreigner could describe “the British Empire as a Colossus with feet of clay.”69

Nevertheless, the image of the Colossus had been defiled by Boer blood. The concentration camps had shocked the world, implying the moral doom of the Empire. Deciding that “Heaven was against us,” Churchill himself had briefly “despaired of the Empire”70 during “this miserable war—unfortunate and ill-omened in its beginning, inglorious in its course, cruel and hideous in its conclusion.”71 But the damage to the Empire’s character as a bastion of freedom and fair play was lasting: Nazi Germany justified its own concentration camps as being a British invention. The South African camps left an indelible legacy of bitterness. They filled Afrikaner nationalism with hate as the Great Trek had filled it with pride. They “seared into the very soul of the Boer people,”72 a people increasingly inclined to identify with the children of Israel, who were purified by suffering “as by fire.”73 Memories of the camps impeded reconciliation for generations after Britain granted the two republics independence and (in 1910) formed the Union of South Africa. In the other dominions, where some of the apparently spontaneous enthusiasm for the war had been the product of propaganda, faith in the Empire was shaken. Settler communities overseas were always inclined to think that it was based on exploitation and nothing did more to confirm this than Milner’s post-war sanctioning of indentured Chinese labour on the Rand. Widely denounced as “slavery,” it seemed to confirm that the South African conflict had been a “colossal fraud” engineered by “bloodthirsty money grubbers.” Far from being fought to defend the Empire, “the war was a sweater’s war, a war for cheap labour.”74 Colonial alienation fed on the suspicion of British greed. When Chamberlain appealed to the dominions for help with imperial defence in 1902, they saw not a “weary Titan” staggering under the “too vast orb of its fate,” to use the metaphor he borrowed from Matthew Arnold, but a “Falstaff, gorged beyond digestion.”75

Actually the South African conflict was Britain’s last major war of imperial expansion and it provided humiliating evidence of physical decrepitude as well as moral turpitude. The British Army seemed to epitomise the national deterioration that obsessed the Edwardian age. Patriots such as Arthur Conan Doyle lamented that its men were less virile than their foes and even their colonial allies. Irish nationalists such as James Connolly rejoiced that the Boers had “pricked the bubble of England’s fighting reputation,” thus marking the “beginning of the end”76 of the British Empire. The rot could be seen everywhere and efforts were made to shore up the edifice. A prime concern was the security of Britain’s iron walls. While its dockyards bulged with archaic vessels, “a miser’s hoard of obsolete junk,”77 could the nation survive “a naval Colenso”?78 No one warned more urgently than the daemonic Admiral Jackie Fisher about the loss of supremacy at sea on which Britain’s Empire rested. The alliance with Japan (1902) relieved pressure in the Far East just as the rapprochement with the United States had done in the Caribbean. And Fisher augmented the fleet’s strength closer to home, building great ships such as Courageous, Furious and Glorious, which his officers called Outrageous, Spurious and Uproarious. But foreign armadas grew remorselessly, especially across the North Sea. Before the Great War it was a commonplace that “We are in the position of Imperial Rome when the Barbarians were thundering at the frontiers.”79

Arthur Balfour, the silky aesthete who succeeded his uncle Lord Salisbury as Prime Minister in 1902, had no difficulty in recognising decadence when he saw it. It was one of the most potent “forces which silently prepare the fate of empires.”80 He took several fortifying measures, reforming the education system, establishing the Entente Cordiale with France and founding a permanent Committee of Imperial Defence to collate military matters on scientific lines. Joseph Chamberlain saw “signs of decay”81 in the once-glorious fabric of British trade, comparable to cracks in the walls of the Campanile of St. Mark’s in Venice which had just collapsed in ruins. In 1903, tapping anxieties about the further advance of commercial rivals, as expressed in popular books such as Made in Germany (1896) and The American Invaders (1901), he launched a campaign for the erection of tariff barriers. Chamberlain hoped that economic protection would go hand in hand with imperial federation. As it happened, the nation would not abandon free trade and the dominions would not abandon independence. Yet the Boer War, so disastrous to Britain’s standing in the world, did encourage the growth of a laager mentality.

Governments aimed to improve social defence and to increase national efficiency. “I see little glory in an Empire which can rule the waves and is unable to flush its sewers,”82 said Winston Churchill, who during the years after the Liberal victory in 1906 helped to lay the foundations of the welfare state. Kipling thought that the lesson taught by the war was that flannelled fools at the wicket and muddied oafs at the goal should learn to shoot and ride. Roberts crusaded for national service. The Victoria League issued female imperial propaganda. In 1906 the Junior Imperial League (known as the Junior Imps) was formed. Two years later Baden-Powell founded the Boy Scout movement to transform “pale narrow-chested, hunched-up, miserable specimens”83 who smoked, loafed, soaked and practised self-abuse, the sort of duffers who had caused the downfall of the Roman Empire, into a healthy master race. Many novels of the time centred on invasion scares—the Daily Mail serialised one in which the German army’s route through England was determined by a desire to boost the paper’s circulation in certain towns—and in several of them manly Boy Scouts saved the day. For example, the plucky refusal of “the Janissaries of Empire” to march past the victorious Kaiser in Saki’s When William Came (1914) destroyed the conqueror’s prestige. There was an element of farce in the attempt to rejuvenate the nation by juvenile means, compounded by Baden-Powell’s callow personality and adolescent language. But he was typical of his time in nursing terrible doubts about the continuing superiority of the imperial race.

This was invariably regarded as the key element in British greatness. As G. K. Chesterton said, “in the last resort, all progress, all empire, all efficiency, depends upon the kind of race we breed.”84 It was the prime article of faith for imperialists such as Joseph Chamberlain:

I believe in this race, the greatest governing race the world has ever seen; in this Anglo-Saxon race, so proud, tenacious, self-confident and determined, this race which neither climate nor change can degenerate, which will infallibly be the predominant force of future history and universal civilisation.85

Yet the spectre of racial deterioration stalked the land. Many sought to exorcise it by conjuring with pauper emigration, racial hygiene (i.e. birth control), labour colonies for wastrels, sterilisation of the unfit. Eugenics became fashionable and Beatrice Webb even toyed with the idea of polygamy because it opened up vistas of “scientific breeding.”86 Nevertheless, a general mood of pessimism prevailed. Books were published bearing titles such as What Should England do to be Saved? and Will England last the Century? In 1905 a new tract appeared entitled The Decline and Fall of the British Empire. It purported to be the translation of a text written for the instruction of Japanese schoolchildren in 2005 and its author’s ideograph nom de plume was rendered thus: “FOR THE GOOD OF THE RACE.”87 Drawing on Gibbon, the pamphlet made much of the morbid symptoms common to Britain and Rome. For example, it likened the British Army’s adoption of a lighter rifle to the Roman legions’ abandonment of the heavy short sword. The British Empire’s collapse was attributed to physical as well as moral decadence.

So vital was it to preserve the myth of British race superiority in India that, despite Kitchener’s pleas, no sepoys were sent to the Cape. The London government feared that if brown soldiers defeated whites in the “Dark Continent” they might be emboldened to attempt another uprising in the subcontinent. The distrust was as endemic as malaria. After the Mutiny, indeed, it was seriously suggested that “we might do well to imitate the Roman policy, which jealously excluded the employment in the conquered provinces of troops native to the place,” and garrison India with “Hottentots, Caffres, Negroes, etc.”88 Sepoys therefore fought Boxer rebels in China but not Boer commandos in South Africa. Many Indians resented this slur on Indian loyalty and genuinely wanted an imperial victory. But the despised babus often rejoiced at Boer successes. And militant nationalists such as Bal Ganghadar Tilak, quoting the Pathan dictum that the Raj was “the reward given to the British by Allah sitting in the barrel of a gun,” noted how vulnerable they were to “guerrilla warfare.”89 The ambivalence of the Indian position was embodied in the slight person of a radical young lawyer called Mohandas Gandhi, who was known in South Africa as a “coolie barrister.”90

Gandhi, which means “grocer” in his native Gujerati, was the son of the chief minister (dewan) of the small princely state of Porbandar and aged thirteen, in 1882, he had married a child bride chosen for him by his father. Later he qualified at the Inner Temple in London, where he adopted metropolitan ways, took lessons in ballroom dancing and dressed like a Wildean dandy. He was once seen in Piccadilly wearing a silk top hat, starched collar, rainbow-coloured tie, silk shirt, morning coat with striped trousers, patent leather shoes and spats, and carrying gloves and a silver-mounted stick. In the ungainly little figure of Gandhi East met West. He imbibed Hindu transcendentalism from such classics as the Bhagavad Gita and he assimilated the ideals of the “Victorian gentleman”91 from his legal studies in England. Bridging this gulf were sages such as Tolstoy, Ruskin and Thoreau, who exercised a powerful influence over his mind. Moreover, Gandhi participated in eclectic movements such as theosophy and vegetarianism. He read voraciously and ate sparingly, becoming less a faddist than a fanatic about food—when his son was on the point of death his main fear was that the doctor would give him beef tea. Eventually Gandhi insisted that his own meals should cost no more than three annas (threepence) a day. Since nothing complicates life like the quest for simplicity, this restriction caused inordinate trouble and expense, particularly as he refused cow’s milk because it excited concupiscence and would only drink the milk of “the chastest” she-goat.92 As well as being a dietary evangelist Gandhi was a sartorial pilgrim, gradually reducing his dress until he reached the sans-culotte state. Europeans “wear plus-fours,” he would famously quip, “but I prefer minusfours.”93 Like Edward Carpenter, who “preached the gospel of salvation by sandals” on the grounds that shoes were “leather coffins,”94 Gandhi learned to make his own sandals. He even presented a pair (fashioned at Tolstoy Farm, the Utopian community outside Johannesburg which he founded in 1910) to General Smuts. In sum, the mature Gandhi was a compound of oriental mystic and occidental crank, humble sadhu and astute advocate, visionary and revolutionary.

In South Africa during the 1890s he was still developing his ideas and refining his tactics. He himself felt the weight of discrimination when he arrived at Durban, being pushed around by railway officials and policemen, and once severely beaten. Soon he took the lead in resisting the race laws of Natal, where Indians outnumbered Europeans who, said Gandhi, “desire to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir.” When the war broke out, he sympathised with the brave, patriarchal Boers. But as an imperial subject he supported the British and hoped that his compatriots would reap a political reward for their loyalty. Indeed, Gandhi helped to form an Indian Ambulance Corps. He served in it himself, wearing a khaki uniform, a Red Cross armband and a moustache, and came under fire at Spion Kop, for which he won a medal. When Queen Victoria died he led a procession of Indian mourners in Durban and telegraphed the community’s condolences to the royal family, “bewailing the Empire’s loss in the death of the greatest and most loved Sovereign on earth.”95 But far from being treated better after the war, South Africa’s Indians suffered worse disabilities simply “because they wear a brown skin.”96 In the Transvaal, for example, the Boer pass laws, which Milner had earlier condemned as a malign manifestation of Krugerism, were enforced with new rigour. Gandhi was shocked as much by the hypocrisy as by the injustice. He himself embraced poverty, chastity and civil disobedience. He campaigned actively for Indian rights by means of passive resistance. This he called satyagraha, or “soul force,” a blend of Christian pacifism and Hindu non-violence. By his inspiring championship of his countrymen abroad he revitalised the nationalist movement at home, a movement whose roots went back to the Mutiny and beyond.

Since 1857, the British in India had themselves been caught on the horns of an East/West dilemma. In order to maintain stability they felt obliged to rule an oriental despotism by the sword and to support the old order up to the hilt. They expressed scepticism about improving the lot of their native subjects, such progress being “utterly at variance with every Eastern idea.” Two thousand years more “will not change them,” declared Sir William Denison, Governor of Madras, “or make a white man of an Hindoo.”97Independence might be the goal but most Britons felt that it could only be reached, if at all, after painstakingly slow reform. Lord Elgin, who succeeded Canning as Viceroy in 1861, could scarcely expect to amend the condition of people whom he treated “not as dogs, because in that case one would whistle to them and pat them, but as machines with which one can have no communion or sympathy.”98 Elgin, who was said to talk platitudes on principle, gave fastidious expression to the policy of gradualism. “We must, for a time at least, walk in paths traced out by others,” he said, “filling up here a little hole, removing there a bit of dirt—confining ourselves in short to a sort of scavenger’s work—all of it very humble and some rather nasty.”99 On the other hand, enlightened Victorians could hardly deny that good government was the raison d’être of the Raj. “Sanitation, Education, Hospitals, Roads, Bridges, Navigation,” intoned Lord Mayo, who became Viceroy after Sir John Lawrence in 1869. “We are trying to do in half a century what in other countries has occupied the life of a Nation.”100 The final object of this advance was inescapable, not least because in 1867 Britain itself shot Niagara (as Carlyle put it), taking the plunge towards democracy. Britain’s aim should be, said Lord Ripon, a later Viceroy, to help Indians acquire “a larger share in the management of their own affairs.”101 Needless to say, policies do not fit squarely into boxes and the Kiplingesque dichotomy between East and West is too simple. Like Gandhi, British rulers drew freely on the traditions that suited them. Moreover, conservative as well as liberal Viceroys helped to foster the growth of Indian nationalism.

This was partly because the British, despite their proclaimed genius for government, ruled India badly. According to myth the Grand Ornamental on top was as able, assiduous and high-minded as “the heaven-born” beneath—those thousand members of the Indian Civil Service who were sometimes likened to Plato’s “Guardians,”102 a specially trained elite whose composition the gods had alloyed with gold. But if the intentions were benevolent, the results were dispiriting. Sir John Lawrence, for example, was a dedicated paternalist who emphasised to Mayo, on his arrival in Calcutta, the importance of treating natives kindly, only to leap out of their carriage and pull the ears of a tardy groom (syce). Mayo himself, a hearty, burly Tory, promised India an “age of improvement”103 and spared no pains to achieve it. He took advice from Florence Nightingale, who prided herself on being “Governess to the Governor of India.”104 He promoted public works such as ports, railways, canals and irrigation schemes. He encouraged his lonely officers, toiling amid heat, dust and disease, to establish a “pure, powerful & just” regime.105 Each year Mayo travelled thousands of miles through the countryside (mofussil) to take a personal lead in “the magnificent work of governing an inferior Race.”106 A lot of the distance he covered on horseback, wearing out his breeches and wondering why nobody paid him the compliment once addressed to the hard-riding George Canning: “Under any circumstances Sir, but especially at the present, I’d rather be the owner of your head than your a[rse].”107 Yet the evidence of Mayo’s own correspondence, much of it unpublished, suggests that he involuntarily presided over a subcontinental muddle.

State intervention was minimal since London instructed him “to make bricks without straw, to reduce taxation & to increase expenditure.”108 Even during the famines that ravaged India between 1860 and 1908, costing at least thirty million lives, humanity was sacrificed to economy—Lord Curzon later acknowledged that an Indian famine excited no more attention in Britain than a squall on the Serpentine. In the Presidencies of Bombay, Bengal and Madras, which (to Mayo’s chagrin) invariably obstructed the employment of Indians, bitter jealousy and divided authority paralysed control. British civil servants, often pig-sticking, gin-swigging, public-school men impossibly remote from their subjects, “look on India as a milch cow.”109 There were so many military sinecurists, inspecting officers with nothing to inspect and duty officers with no duties to do, that the army had become a “laughing stock.”110 The Public Works Department was a byword for villainy—the initials PWD allegedly stood for “Plunder Without Danger” and Mayo waxed indignant about the use of English wood for telegraph poles “put up in one of the finest forests in India.”111 The unofficial European community, which grew rapidly after the Mutiny, “do not care a farthing for the country…[and] come here to get as much money out of the blacks as they can,”112 an ambition which British policies largely assisted. Such hopes of amelioration as the Viceroy may have retained were cruelly extinguished in 1872. While inspecting a penal colony in the Andaman Islands, he was assassinated by a convict. Mayo’s body, enclosed in a two-ton coffin, was received in Calcutta with pomp and passion. The procession passed in silence. Nothing was heard but the rattle of the gun carriage, the tramp of horses and men, among them an escort of giant, white-clad sailors, and the firing of minute guns from Fort William and from the two-mile line of ships in the Hooghly, their flags at half mast and their yards tossed into a state of disarray. The atmosphere was “excited and half-electric.” Every white face looked as “grim as death.” Every European heart seemed possessed by murderous fury of a kind not experienced since the Mutiny. Fitzjames Stephen wrote to his mother, “When Lord Mayo was stabbed, I think every man in the country felt as if he has been more or less stabbed himself.”113

Mayo had been especially keen to end the condition of “chronic anarchy”114 prevailing in Jaipur, Udaipur, Alwar and a number of the other quasi-independent native states that occupied a quarter of the subcontinent. He complained that in these kingdoms corruption and intrigue were as rife as during Mughal times, and there was a vast amount of female infanticide to add to other social evils. By contrast, Lord Lytton, who was Viceroy from 1876 to 1880, conciliated what he saw as India’s great hereditary aristocracy. He thought officials wrong to believe that “we can hold India by what they call good government” and he put his trust in princes. They should be given no real power, of course, but fortunately they were “easily affected by sentiment, and susceptible to the influence of symbols.”115 In particular they could be captivated by the magic of the new Empress of India, and attached to the throne by feudal ties, gold medals, silken banners, multi-gun salutes and all the paraphernalia of majesty. Lytton was a minor poet and a major popinjay, who was himself dazzled by jewelled visions of the East—by gorgeous palaces, elephant parades, royal tiger hunts and “emeralds to make your eyes water.”116 But this picture was already a romantic anachronism. Not all maharajahs thought only of nautch girls and polo ponies, and some were remarkably progressive, so much so that the British held them back. Furthermore, princely influence over the supposedly inert peasantry was more limited than Lytton imagined. In a land of nearly two hundred languages and six hundred dialects, as the Parsee politician Dadabhai Naoroji said, English was creating “strong bonds of nationality” and educated members of the middle class were becoming “the natural leaders of the masses.”117 Doubtless Lytton had an inkling of this for he grumbled about babus learning to write sedition. And he became all the more determined to secure the loyalty of the Indian princes to the Kaiser-i-Hind, to give Queen Victoria her new title, at the Imperial Assemblage in 1876.

This took place in a tented city of 84,000 people erected on the red clay plain, cleared of a hundred villages, just beyond the ridge occupied by the British forces during the siege of Delhi. At its centre was the Viceroy’s gas-illuminated canvas pavilion and the focus of the pageant was his eighty-foot-high daïs, a scarlet temple embellished (by Lockwood Kipling, Rudyard’s father) with so much tinsel and glitter that it looked like a huge Christmas cake. There were battle-axes, silver shields, gold imperial crowns, festoons of red and white satin embroidered with gilded fleurs-de-lis, and multi-coloured silken standards adorned with heraldic devices—a mock-baronial melange reminiscent of Lytton’s ancestral home, Knebworth. The decorative details were as vital, Lytton told Disraeli, as the entrails from which “augurs draw the omens that move armies and influence princes.”118 An elaborate ceremony took place, at which British officers joked audibly about cutting off the ears of the brilliantly attired maharajahs for their diamonds. The Viceroy, a small, robed figure in a blue-velvet, ermine-bordered, star-spangled, gold-tasselled cape, presented them with concocted coats of arms—the most useless of all coats, according to Gibbon. A proclamation was read, trumpets sounded, guns fired, elephants stampeded and, as Val Prinsep noted coolly, “killed a few natives.”119

Meanwhile, over five million more were dying in the worst famine of the century. Lytton was criticised for holding this public display of magnificence at such a time and caricatured as Nero fiddling while Rome burned. Perhaps he fancied himself more as Diocletian, who had maintained that “an ostentation of splendour and luxury would subdue the imagination of the multitude.”120 At any rate, he was unabashed. Malnutrition was a fact of life in India. Over a fifth of Bengalis did “not know the feeling of a full stomach except in the mango season”121 while the “nearly naked”122 peasants on the burning plains of the Deccan ate little but millet flavoured with red peppers. As starvation bit deeper, producing scenes of horror that made the blood of witnesses run cold, Lytton condemned “humanitarian hysterics.”123 Instead he treated the famine as an official secret and enjoined strict economy over state aid. He wanted grain prices kept high to encourage imports, failing to recognise that people were dying from poverty rather than scarcity. Despite a recent operation for piles, which caused him to sit uneasily on the Viceregal throne, Lytton did inspect the hard-hit area around Madras. But he found the relief camps “swarming with fat, idle, able-bodied paupers.”124 His priorities had been clearly stated when the Governor of Bombay said that he could not come to the Delhi durbar because he was tackling the food crisis. Lytton summoned him peremptorily, insisting that “the failure of the Assemblage would be more disastrous to the permanent interests of the Empire than twenty famines.”125

Such Bourbon insouciance not only precipitates revolution but accelerates the death of empires. There were indeed widespread protests and grain riots in 1877. Despite traumatic memories of the post-Mutiny terror, there was even a Maratha conspiracy “to destroy British power in India by means of an armed rebellion.”126 But Lytton remained a self-indulgent seigneur posing as a bearded bohemian. He wrote erotic verse and dawdled away whole evenings flirting with pretty women, occasionally availing himself of their company by promoting their husbands. He kept people waiting in the sun while he finished his cigar. He preened himself in velvet smoking jackets, floppy cravats, bell-bottomed trousers, square-toed shoes and flashy jewellery. He succumbed to hysterical depressions, hardly alleviated by his French chef, his Italian confectioner and his German band. Although he consorted with Indian chiefs to such an extent that his reign was known as the “Black Raj,” his policies alienated the emerging middle class. He tried to create a two-tier civil service whereby Indians would be excluded from top levels, arguing that race distinction was fundamental to Britain’s position as the conquering power. The India Office preferred the system which permitted a handful of natives to join the ranks of the “heaven-born,” but it did sanction other discriminatory acts. Lytton removed duties on imported coarse cotton goods, thus further sacrificing Indian manufactures to those of Lancashire. He imposed a Vernacular Press Act (1878), modelled on Irish legislation, to gag criticism in non-English newspapers—as Jawaharlal Nehru would point out, the word “vernacular” came from the Latin verna, meaning home-born slave. Lytton simultaneously appointed a Commissioner to feed journalists official information and if necessary to bribe them with Secret Service money. Finally, he plunged India into a bloody, expensive and needless war.

Disraeli and Salisbury, impatient with the policy of “masterly inactivity,” had encouraged him to assert British sway over Afghanistan in order to check the alleged ambitions of Russia. But this was not enough for Lytton. He thought that his compatriots were “fast losing the instinct” of empire, demoralised by the democracy enshrined in “that deformed and abortive offspring of perennial fornication, the present British Constitution.”127 “Really,” he exclaimed, “England seems to be under some fate as inevitable as the doom of the House of Pelops.”128 Lytton therefore became more aggressive than his instructions allowed, trying to force an unwelcome diplomatic mission on the Emir Sher Ali, the son of Britain’s former enemy Dost Mahomed. In cabinet Salisbury declared that the Viceroy was attempting to dictate the government’s foreign policy and that unless curbed he would bring about a disaster. However, the Emir’s rejection of the British envoy dealt a blow to Britain’s prestige that could not be ignored. So Lytton ordered the invasion of Afghanistan. His aim was not to annex the country, which contained “nothing but stones and scoundrels,”129 but to punish and secure it. A superstitious atheist, the Viceroy spent much of his spare time “making fire-balloons which he launched at intervals, auguring from their quick or slow ascension good or bad fortune to his army.”130

At first it achieved success and the British minister, Sir Louis Cavagnari, duly arrived in Kabul. But in September 1879 he and his staff were murdered, an event widely predicted yet as shocking in its way as Isandhlwana. The conflict resumed and Sir Frederick Roberts proved as victorious in battle as he was vicious in repression. According to one of his generals, he shot at least six men “in cold blood” and hanged dozens more, some of them in pig-skin hoods, “for fighting against us.”131 Lytton told Fitzjames Stephen that he would support Roberts “through thick and thin, yet between ourselves, I think that some of his arrests and executions were political mistakes.”132 However, Roberts enabled the British to extricate themselves and in due course to establish an uneasy détente with Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Lytton was almost universally execrated. Gladstone thundered about the irredeemable guilt of unnecessary war. And the Duke of Argyll, formerly Secretary of State for India, became so incandescent with rage that (as Lytton imaginatively phrased it) he set himself on fire with his hair. In the subcontinent itself the Viceroy was blamed for adding war to famine. All told, he significantly sharpened the differences between white rulers and educated Indians, who in 1857 had generally identified with the Raj and by the end of the century generally opposed it.

The hostility grew still more acute after 1880 even though Lytton’s successor, Lord Ripon, was a Gladstonian Liberal who governed India with unprecedented sympathy. Ripon, the high-minded, long-winded son of Britain’s most insignificant Prime Minister, Lord Goderich, believed that it was vital to make “educated natives the friends, instead of the enemies, of our rule.”133 Thus he introduced a measure of local self-government that provided Indians with a means of political expression. Admittedly it was limited—Evelyn Baring called it a safety valve for the babu, who would soon be shut up if he spouted on any topic more important than roads and drains. But Ripon regarded it as a stage on the path to independence. From that path he removed the block of censorship, repealing Lytton’s Vernacular Press Act. He opposed foreign adventures, refusing to annex Upper Burma, for example, though this task was merely postponed. Other reforms were thwarted. Traditional evils continued. Indian policemen, sometimes “more moustache (!!) than brain,”134 went on using torture with the connivance of their British superiors. Ripon lacked the strength and the ability to get his way, notably in the cause célèbre of his reign. This was his endeavour to permit Indian judges to try Europeans, which they had recently been prohibited from doing in violation of the principle asserted by Macaulay and others that the law was colour-blind.

Known as the Ilbert Bill, after the legal member of the Viceroy’s Council, the proposal outraged almost the entire British community. Especially incensed were the twenty thousand non-official Europeans—traders, engineers, planters and so on. These were the lowest castes in the white hierarchy and they only maintained that status by asserting their dominance over Indians, often rudely, sometimes brutally. One tea planter advised Wilfrid Scawen Blunt to strike natives hard but not too hard, since “they are capable without any exaggeration of dying to spite you.”135Opponents of the bill conducted a fierce campaign, the hubbub of their first great protest meeting, held in Calcutta Town Hall on 28 February 1883, being audible in Government House. They asserted that this malign measure would wreck the whole basis of British rule in India. Among other things they exploited the most lurid fears of their countrymen, declaring that inveterately corrupt Indian magistrates would abuse their powers and fill their harems with the flower of English womanhood. Ripon and Ilbert were denounced as race traitors. Kipling, who as a cub journalist inadvertently endorsed government policy, was hissed in the Lahore Club. He quickly changed tack, reflecting European paranoia in this grotesque depiction of India’s urban throng as a “human menagerie”: “Faces of dogs, swine, weazles and goats, all the more hideous for being set in human bodies, and lighted with human intelligence…all giving the on-looker the impression of wild beasts held back from murder and violence, and chafing against the restraint.”136 Racial passion threatened to boil over into a “white mutiny,”137 so Ripon abandoned the bill. Nevertheless, Indians respected him above all other Viceroys and when he left in 1884 they saluted him with well-planned demonstrations. Amritsar deluged him with rose petals. Calcutta blazed with illuminations in his honour. Bombay, which was decorated not only with “banners and bands, flags, streamers, mottoes, garlands,”138 but with pearls and diamonds, gave him a triumph. Now, though, many of the country’s well-educated Indians felt that friendship between the races had become impossible. The British had shown their true colours. They had also provided a lesson in organised agitation. The Indian National Congress rose from the ashes of the Ilbert Bill.

Nothing better reveals the initial weakness of this nationalist association, consisting mainly of Hindu lawyers and journalists, than the fact that its leading spirit was a Scotsman. Allan Octavian Hume, the son of a radical MP, had been a high official whose fatherly rule was popular in the North-West Provinces. He had even devised a patent drop to reduce suffering on the gallows and it was said that men prayed to be tried by Hume and, if found guilty, to be hanged by him. His career had come to a premature end, partly because of his insistent warnings that the fate of the Empire depended on the inclusion of more Indians in the government. This was the modest aim of Congress, which first met in 1885 and hoped to be “the germ of a Native Parliament.”139 But having no widespread organisation, no substantial funds and no popular appeal, it made virtually no progress. In India the walrus-moustached Hume, who referred to Indian colleagues as his children,140 raised the spectre of revolution. In Britain, Naoroji and other emissaries flirted with Charles Parnell’s Irish Home Rulers and took counsel with English anti-imperialists such as Blunt. The latter urged Indian nationalists to “frighten and coerce the English people into giving them their rights.”141

Blunt gave bad advice for at this time coercion was a British prerogative, as Ripon’s successor, Lord Dufferin, demonstrated on the road to Mandalay. In two earlier wars Britain had reduced Burma to an impoverished and unstable rump. It had been shorn of its coastline and deprived of the fertile Irrawaddy delta, which raised the price of its staple foodstuffs, rice and fermented fish or shrimp paste (ngapi). Now, in 1885, Lord Randolph Churchill, Secretary for India, became concerned about French advances in Indo-China and disorder inside King Thibaw’s diminished realm. So, in his “easy-going jaunty way,”142 he approved the conquest of Upper Burma. General Prendergast advanced with rifles and a Burmese phrase book “laboriously compiled by a gentleman unacquainted with the language.”143 One battle achieved a capitulation, opening the path to the golden pagodas and teak lacquer pavilions of Mandalay. Thibaw, a keen cricketer as well as “Lord of All Umbrella-Bearing Chiefs,”144 was brought by bullock cart amid lines of his weeping subjects to the Irrawaddy steamer that would take him into exile. His palace became Fort Dufferin and its main throne rooms were turned into the garrison chapel and the Upper Burma Club.

On the first night of their occupation drunken British soldiers burned the royal treasury, which contained the genealogical records of the hereditary nobility, written on gold-bound palm-leaf manuscripts wrapped in figured silk cloths. A few days later the revered white elephant that was kept in the palace died and Indian troops dragged its carcass through the inauspicious west gate. Thibaw’s throne, supposedly situated at the centre of the universe, was removed to a museum in Calcutta and Queen Victoria received the pick of his gems, including a “necklace with diamond peacock and gold comb” as well as his “best crown.”145 Reckoning that the stubborn Burmese would not provide pliable puppet rulers, Dufferin destroyed the old framework of government and imposed a wholly alien administrative system on the country, incorporating it into the Indian Raj. These and other affronts provoked a long and fierce guerrilla war against the invaders, conducted by princes, peasants, brigands and even Buddhist monks (pongyi). British “pacification” aimed to instil terror. It included flogging, village burning, pagoda looting, summary execution and the employment of Karen tribal people, many of them Christians, to hunt for pongyi heads. Nothing was better calculated to entrench Burmese hatred for the imperial power. “No trumpet of sedition has such an infuriating effect on a population as the shrieks of the women in the villages,” wrote an eyewitness, “lamenting brothers and husbands slain not in battle, but as examples of the power and sternness of the conqueror engaged in ‘establishing a funk.’”146

The Indian National Congress had no wish to face a similar trial and kept to the constitutional path. But the indolent Dufferin, who had at first been sympathetic, was now alarmed. Told that Hume aspired to become an Indian Parnell, Dufferin damned him (with some justice) as a vain, mendacious eccentric. And he dismissed Congress (with more justice) as the representative of a “microscopic minority,” adding the unwarranted claim that the Raj was the defender of the “voiceless millions.”147 The British did make concessions, notably by extending native participation in provincial government. They even made gratuitous gestures, for example allowing Indian cricketers to use the Bombay esplanade, previously consecrated to European polo. It was hoped that cricket matches between the races would “conduce to the solidity of the British Empire.” But when a Parsi side beat a team from England in 1890, the “lowing, multi-coloured throng” celebrated its triumph, wrote a white observer, by surging to and fro “gibbering and chattering and muttering vague words of evil omen.”148 Such manifestations ensured that the British also pursued their traditional policy of exploiting the “ready-made fissures”149 within Indian society. Congress could not speak for the nation, they said, because there was no nation. There was only a mosaic of competing races, religions, castes, customs, languages and scripts. India was (to quote Winston Churchill) “no more a united nation than the equator.”150

Congress itself illustrated the point by splitting over the deepest rift, that between Hindus and Muslims. Its unity was also threatened by contentious issues such as child marriage. In 1891 the Viceroy proposed to raise the age of consent after an eleven-year-old wife died as a result of sexual intercourse with her mature husband. The reform was carried out in the name of western enlightenment (though until 1929 twelve remained the legal age at which girls could marry in Britain) and it provoked a violent response from renascent Hinduism under the leadership of the Chitpavan (“Purified by Fire”) Brahmin B. G. Tilak. To keep him within the fold, Congress temporised, trying to focus attention on an all-Indian cause. That was provided after 1895 by outbreaks of plague and famine so grave as significantly to decrease the population. Nationalists, who made political capital out of what they claimed to be the “constant drain of wealth” from the subcontinent to the United Kingdom, plausibly asserted that “India is bleeding to death.”151 So Congress grew stronger, accommodating for a time two rival leaders: the revolutionary firebrand Tilak and the social reformer Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Tilak inspired a large Hindu following by conjuring with India’s past glories as embodied in the Maratha ruler Shivaji, whose violence he found congenial—he himself was implicated in the assassination of a senior British official during the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 1897. By contrast, Gokhale was a liberal humanitarian who drew on western traditions which had a special attraction for educated Bengali youths, some so dissident that they ate meat, drank beer and greeted the ferocious goddess Kali with “Good morning, Madam.”152 Most had a passion for freedom stimulated by their classical studies: as the writer Nirad Chaudhuri said, “we seemed to feel on our shoulders the weight of an unseen toga.”153 Gandhi compared Tilak to the turbulent, mysterious ocean and Gokhale to the smooth, inviting Ganges. In him they merged, forming a single flood from the crosscurrents of Indian nationalism. Gandhi had a “unique capacity” to combine Tilak’s mass appeal with Gokhale’s moral example.154

Meanwhile, though, the most industrious, ambitious and ostentatious of all the Viceroys, Lord Curzon of Kedleston, tried to kill Congress by kindness—by giving India the best government it had ever enjoyed. The subcontinent had excited Curzon’s imagination ever since, as a boy at Eton, he heard Fitzjames Stephen talk about Britain’s possession of an eastern empire “more populous, more amazing and more beneficent than that of Rome.” Stephen’s address was full of “school book commonplaces,”155 Curzon remarked with characteristic loftiness, but it inspired him with a vision of India as the axis of imperial glory and the talisman of British greatness. So he prepared himself for a historic role in the Raj. He excelled at Oxford. He married an American heiress. He travelled widely in the East, having first hired from a theatrical costumier a galaxy of foreign decorations, huge gold epaulettes, enormous Wellington boots with spurs, and a gigantic curved sword. He then established himself through his pen as the prime parliamentary authority on Asia.

The young George Nathaniel Curzon, who was said to have the habits of minor royalty without its habitual incapacity, made it plain that he was destined to ascend the Viceregal throne—conveniently situated in a Government House modelled on his own ancestral home. He was duly mocked as a “most superior person,” as “George the Fifth,” as “God’s butler.” But the grand manner was as natural to him as the air he breathed. Pomp was his essential medium and pomposity his instinctive mode, though he sometimes pricked both with shafts of ribaldry. Lord Beaverbrook could not understand how he managed to be at once a wit and a bore. Curzon behaved with “enamelled self-assurance,”156 not to say brazen arrogance—late in life, when the chimes of Big Ben disturbed his rest, he tried to have them silenced. Conscious of Britain’s world responsibilities, he personified “the old Roman quality of gravitas.157 He wrote incessantly, never pausing for thought and once sending his wife a letter a hundred pages long. He spoke with orotund magniloquence, though (a friend observed) his words were always a size too big for his thoughts. “He lisped in Gibbon,” said Lord D’Abernon, and gave orders “in language that would not have disgraced Cicero addressing the Roman Senate…‘Housemaid, throw wide the casement,’ ‘Footman, add fuel to the flame.’”158

When he did become Viceroy in 1899, just before his fortieth birthday, Curzon was equally imperious towards Indians, whatever their rank—he treated the princes as a pack of ignorant, unruly schoolboys who had to be disciplined for their own good. They were also to be awed by assertions of power. Curzon chose as the epigraph for his book British Government in India the invocation which another conqueror of Delhi, Tamerlane, addressed to the Ottoman successor of the Roman emperors in Constantinople. As quoted by Gibbon, it reads:

Dost thou not know, that the greatest part of Asia is subject to our arms and our laws? that our invincible forces extend from one sea to another? that the potentates of the earth form a line before our gate? and that we have compelled fortune herself to watch over the prosperity of our empire?159

Yet although Curzon was the shadow-sovereign of what he hoped would be a thousand-year Raj, he nursed Gibbonian doubts about whether it would last a century. He recognised the growth of national feeling that could “never be wholly reconciled to an alien government.” He repeated the cliché that Indians would rather rule themselves badly than be well ruled by the British. And he determined “to postpone the longed-for day of emancipation” by denying Congress what it craved, “an open sore which can always be kept angry by the twist of the goad.”160

If toil was the criterion, Curzon’s administration lived up to his exalted aspirations. His Viceregal existence was “an endless typhoon of duty.”161 To paraphrase The Times, he took to government as other men take to drink.162 He laboured with indefatigable zeal (and interminable, self-pitying complaint) to give India measures of justice, reform and public welfare. In his efforts to foster commerce, improve communications, develop irrigation, relieve famine, spread education, strengthen defence, increase security and promote efficiency, Curzon virtually reconstructed the Raj. He made himself almost as unpopular as Ripon with the white community (and initially popular with Indians) by condemning instances of racial violence on the part of British soldiers and civilians. He resisted Britain’s “Shylock” exploitation of India,163 writing to Whitehall as though he were the ruler of a foreign power. He restored the Taj Mahal and other monuments, aiming to build a golden bridge between East and West, as he put it, which even the roaring floods of time would not sweep away. In Calcutta he initiated his own version of the Taj in the shape of the Victoria Memorial, a white marble Valhalla of British-Indian heroes (some dressed in togas) with the Queen at its centre. It was designed to immortalise the Raj and, like the gardens at the northern end of the maidan which Curzon remodelled in the shape of a Union Jack, to stimulate imperial patriotism. This task was beyond him, not least because he tried to rule alone. Incapable of delegation, he dissipated his energies in minutiae. He kept his own household accounts. He criticised his subordinates’ punctuation and wardrobe. He complained about pigeon droppings in Calcutta’s Public Library and the state of the lion’s cage at the Zoo. He banished European barmaids from India lest they impair white prestige. He arranged every detail of the 1903 Delhi durbar to mark King Edward’s coronation, “the width of a road, the pattern of a carving, the colour of a plaster,”164right down to the sale of Indian artefacts through the agency of Thomas Cook. This extravagant pageant, known as the “Curzonation,”165 was another attempt to dazzle the supposedly susceptible masses. Educated Indians pilloried it as “government by entertainment.”166

Personally and politically, Curzon was at once unbending and condescending. His clean-shaven features seemed to have been chiselled into a patrician mask. He was physically aloof, partly as a result of wearing a steel corset to combat painful curvature of the spine—he moved, said Harold Nicolson, as if he were carrying his own howdah. He was also socially distant, in the manner of Wellesley. Since the Mutiny the Olympian character of British rule had been best symbolised by the regular summer migration of the government to the Himalayan village of Simla. This cool “Capua in the hills,”167 as Curzon called it, became more accessible in his time thanks to the construction of a narrow-gauge railway from Kalka. Costing over £1 million, it was a marvellous feat of engineering, including two miles of viaducts and 107 tunnels, traversed in only six hours by a puffing-billy that R. A. Butler christened “the Little Ill Train.”168 Nevertheless, India’s summer capital was as remote as it was precarious—an avalanche of villas, faintly reminiscent of Tunbridge Wells, poised to cascade off its ridge. “Beyond the beyond” was the architect Edwin Lutyens’s verdict on the ramshackle, tin-roofed hill station which might have been built by clever monkeys, he suggested, who “must be shot in case they do it again.”169 Curzon appreciated the bracing atmosphere. His imagination soared as he contemplated the snowy peaks and he resolved that the English should climb them and become “the first mountaineering race in the world.”170 But he would have agreed with Lytton that Simla was “a mere bivouac.”171

Curzon looked down on the society of what had always been “a very gay and worldly place—full of scandalous people and gossiping tongues who make much mischief.”172 He disdained the Arcadian frivolities of the little tin gods (and goddesses), evoked for the ages by Kipling—the archery and axe-grinding, the croquet and tennis, the skating and sketching, the steeple-chases and gymkhanas, the amateur dramatics and fancy dress balls, the games of riddles and forfeits, and the picnics made exotic by the scent of deodar and rhododendron, and by the taste of wild strawberries and fresh lemon sherbet. Curzon disparaged the Maples furniture in the grim new Viceregal Lodge on Observatory Hill (though King George V, Tsar Nicholas II and Georges Clemenceau were among many global notabilities who did not scorn to furnish their houses from the Tottenham Court Road). With its mock-baronial porches and its pseudo-feudal towers, the Lodge was indeed stunningly hideous, fit only, in the view of a future Vicereine, to be an inebriates’ home or a lunatic asylum. Curzon compared banquets there to dining in the housekeeper’s room with the butler and the lady’s maid. He preferred to retreat to a luxurious tented camp set in magic mountain scenery, the most elevated of all imperial belvederes. From here he kept in touch with the Raj by heliograph during the day and flash-lamp at night.

If Curzon’s de haut en bas attitudes offended Europeans in the subcontinent, who were used to protocol so rigid that it astonished even Edward (VIII) Prince of Wales, they infuriated Indians. The Viceroy affirmed that not a single native was fit to occupy a seat on his Executive Council. The hierophant of Asia suggested that truth was a western concept. The blue-blooded reactionary favoured his own kind in India and seemed to impose a stranglehold on the educated bourgeoisie by increasing government control of universities. Worried about the glacier-like advance of Russia (itself soon to be defeated by Japan, a victory which made all eastern hearts beat faster), Curzon involved India in another needless war. This time Tibet, allegedly succumbing to Russian influence, was the target. The Viceroy dispatched Colonel Francis Younghusband’s military mission to Lhasa on the flimsiest of pretexts, such as attacks by Tibetan troops riding “Nepalese yaks on the frontier.”173 Worst of all, in 1905 Curzon partitioned the province of Bengal without consulting any of its eighty-five million inhabitants. The creation of a Muslim-dominated east and a Hindu-controlled west was administratively convenient but politically provocative. It was a flagrant instance of divide and rule all the more galling for being so successful. It helped to create the Muslim League in 1906, whose members claimed to represent a nation within the nation, a claim partially acknowledged by the provision of separate electorates. And, fifty years after the Mutiny, it split Congress between Gokhale’s moderate majority and Tilak’s angry dissidents.

They staged huge demonstrations. They also tried to promote a nationwide boycott of all things British, though the initial plan to drape Calcutta Town Hall with black in order to mourn partition was dropped when it turned out that the only cloth available was made in England. Furthermore, as acts of terrorism multiplied, Tilak invoked Kali, the sharp-fanged, bloodstained goddess of death and destruction. Gokhale, by contrast, advocated pacific forms of protest. He encouraged Indians to buy swadeshi (home-produced) goods, which advertised the need for swaraj (home rule), now the official policy of Congress. Over the next few years British cotton exports to India fell by a quarter and home-spun (khadi) garments became the livery of nationalism. Curzon, vilified as an obscurantist ogre, was surprised by the uproar. Soon afterwards he was appalled to be jockeyed off his throne as the result of an unscrupulous intrigue by the new Commander-in-Chief, Lord Kitchener, whom he described as “a molten mass of devouring energy and burning ambitions.”174 Steaming away from India, Curzon kept the Viceregal flag flying until he reached Suez but he drained the cup of disappointment to its dregs. No Viceroy had regarded his mission in such an elevated light. “The sacredness of India haunts me like a passion,” he intoned. “To me the message is carved in granite, hewn in the rock of doom: that our work is righteous and that it shall endure.”175 But no Viceroy had stirred up such a spirit of national revolt. It would, with startling speed, reduce Curzon’s whole enterprise to dust.

The Liberal government’s response to the crisis in the subcontinent was conservative. This was surprising since John Morley, who became Secretary of State for India in December 1905, was an old-fashioned radical. He was the free-thinking disciple of Mill and the hero-worshipping biographer of Gladstone—reserving the capital G for his name, it was said, while spelling god in lower case. “Honest John” was also the heir of Cobden, sharing his conviction about the ultimate futility of the Raj and adding to it the contemporary belief that “old England is played out in all respects.”176 Moreover, he was the guru of Gokhale and other progressive members of Congress. But once in power Morley reminded them of “Ariel in the hateful bondage of Sycorax.”177 He succumbed to officialdom and he was further hampered by having to work through Curzon’s successor, Lord Minto. The new Viceroy was an ardent rider and huntsman, known on turf as “Mr. Rolly,” whose writ was said to run no further than the stables. But he resisted positive action, maintaining that “many a race has been won by giving the horse a rest between the gallops.”178Morley himself baulked at the first hurdle, refusing to revoke the partition of Bengal. He also ignored Congress when it proclaimed that the day of India’s emancipation, foretold by Macaulay, was nigh and that if England granted it “her name will continue to shine with undimmed glory, even when the New Zealander sits on the ruined arches of Westminster Bridge.”179 An indecisive autocrat, Morley was half-convinced by the Edwardian maxim that “A democracy cannot keep an Empire.”180 He dithered unhappily between his own liberal instincts and the stern exigencies of the Raj. He worried about the “tide of strong opinion”181 rising in the United States against Britain’s Indian despotism yet compared himself approvingly to Cromwell. Everyone said that Morley was a perfect gentleman (except Lord Rosebery, who thought him “a perfect lady”)182 but he swung between high principle and sharp practice. Liberal policy towards India before the First World War is therefore best summed up in a tripartite formula: repression, concession, procession.

First, then, police and troops cracked down on violence and civil disorder throughout the subcontinent. In July 1908 Tilak was arrested and charged with sedition, having extolled the bomb as “a kind of witchcraft, a charm [mantra], an amulet.”183 He was tried by a jury containing not a single Hindu and sentenced to six years in a Mandalay prison, which prompted more riots and strikes. The press was controlled, though Morley described this cure as a “pill for an earthquake.”184 Secondly, an Indian member was introduced into the Viceroy’s Executive Council (where Kitchener insulted him) and further Indian representation was provided on the advisory Legislative Councils, especially in the provinces. This was more a measure of conciliation than a serious move towards representative government, though many in Congress interpreted it as such. Certainly it was an advance on anything Curzon had envisaged and there was some justification for thinking that Morley had taken “a real step forward.”185 It was even said that he had “crossed the Rubicon.”186 Yet Morley himself told Gokhale that an independent India was “a mere dream.”187 And Lord Crewe, who took over at the India Office in 1910, made the same point to Minto’s successor, Lord Hardinge, when he reunited Bengal. Crewe wanted to dispel “the hallucination that any of us are working for an ultimately self-governing India. It is an idle dream, where it is not a revolutionary project.”188

Thirdly, the British staged a magnificent durbar in 1911 to mark the coronation of George V, the only reigning King-Emperor to visit India. It was deliberately designed to eclipse the efforts of Lytton and Curzon. Outside Delhi a camp consisting of ten square miles of canvas was erected for a quarter of a million people. It was the setting for a “unique, splendid, and gorgeous scene,” as one witness recorded, “the like of which has probably never been seen before in the world.”189 At its culmination the King and Queen, preceded by attendants bearing peacock fans, yak tails and gilt maces, flanked by brilliantly caparisoned dignitaries, and followed by ten Indian pages carrying their heavy purple trains, processed to a tented pavilion with a golden cupola set in a vast amphitheatre. With elaborate ceremony they took their places on raised silver thrones. There the monarch, wearing a new crown (an involuntary gift from the people of India costing £60,000), accepted the homage of a glittering constellation of princes. According to the British press, nothing was better calculated to win oriental devotion than this apotheosis of imperial sovereignty. American newspapers were more sceptical, discerning in the very extravagance of the pageantry an attempt to compensate for the increasing vulnerability of the Raj. As a modern scholar observes, “Imperial propaganda grew as Britain declined.”190

It is true that the durbar visit prompted many loyal ovations. In Calcutta, as one witness recorded, the people surged round the royal carriage and “did what the Bengalee Baboo never does—salaamed to the ground, threw dust on their heads, and the women made a guttural sound in their throats which is always kept for the temple.”191 But critics were also vocal. They said that festivity insulted poverty and that frivolity diminished dignity. Crewe himself acknowledged that the priority given to shooting, which seemed to exercise “an unholy fascination” over the King’s mind, gave “an air of flippancy to the tour.”192 There were also contretemps during the durbar itself. When the Gaekwar of Baroda failed to pay obeisance according to the prescribed etiquette Hardinge rebuked him for a shocking lack of respect, whereupon this “disloyal and conceited ass,” an equerry wrote, “cringed and crawled.”193 Furthermore, although the news of the reunification of Bengal pleased Hindus, Muslims were horrified by it and rivalled them in violence. The Viceroy himself was badly injured in a bomb attack as he made his state entry into Delhi on elephant back in 1912. He displayed impressive sang-froid, ordering the procession to continue, but his pith helmet had been blown off and his wife insisted, “You cannot go out in India without a topee.”194 When his stand-in as Viceroy inadvertently wore his topee back to front at an investiture, officials said that the unexpected elevation had quite turned his head.

Hardinge felt increasingly embattled as nationalist pressure continued. It was supported at home by a few faddists and factions, as he called them, who did not seem to appreciate that India was a hugely profitable field of investment and now Britain’s greatest export market, a nucleus of its economy as well as the fulcrum of its Empire. Even Crewe’s India Office seemed bent on compromise, on showing that it was not full of “blood-and-iron bureaucrats.”195 To the Viceroy’s fury it forced him to accept Gokhale as a member of a royal commission on public services. Publicly Hardinge appeared sympathetic towards Congress but privately he regarded Gokhale as “the most dangerous enemy of British rule in this country.”196 In fact that enemy was still at work in South Africa. Here Gandhi made such an issue of Indian grievances that before 1914 they became the focus of the nationalist struggle in the subcontinent. “Ghandi,” whom Crewe spelled thus and described as “a straight and rather high-charactered person, but an undoubted fanatic,”197 persuaded Gokhale to help him in South Africa. Even Hardinge protested about its ill treatment of Indians, who were indeed the helots of empire, their labour exploited from Malaya to Fiji, from East Africa to the West Indies. The success of Gandhi’s campaign (which relieved his countrymen of various disabilities, though it did not win them the vote) established his credentials as Gokhale’s heir. On the eve of the First World War he left South Africa to make his tryst with destiny in India.

There the British had just embarked on a vain attempt to enshrine their sovereignty in stone, teak, marble and bronze. To complement the King’s other durbar announcement—that the capital would move from Calcutta to Delhi—they began to build a new city. The ancient walls of Delhi enclosed the remains of seven previous cities, encompassing an imperial tradition, as Crewe said, comparable to that of Constantinople or Rome. New Delhi would overshadow the seats of Akbar and Aurangzeb, and it would overlook the relics of Hindu dynasties lost in the mists of time. Fascinated by this majestic panorama of the past, the explorer Gertrude Bell exclaimed: “A landscape made up of empires is something to conjure with.”198 The new city, of course, would symbolise the lasting supremacy of the British Raj. The architects Sir Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker designed it along classical western lines, though with Hindu, Buddhist and Mughal features such as water gardens with lotus-petal fountains, lattice casements (jalis)and extended cornices over windows to provide shade (chujjas). Thus New Delhi was to present an orderly contrast to the confusion of Old Delhi, to smack of Roman discipline amid oriental decadence. It was an exercise in hierarchy and geometry. From the position of each building in relation to the Viceroy’s House, crowning Raisina Hill, could be determined the exact status of its occupants. With its spacious vistas, imposing façades, triumphal arches and processional boulevards, New Delhi suggested, as one commentator said, the setting for a perpetual durbar.

The stateliness was matched by the minutiae. The Viceroy’s House, for example, was a palace larger than Versailles, its façades made with red and cream sandstone hewn from Mughal quarries, its floors and walls gleaming with multi-coloured marble such as adorned the Taj Mahal. So vast was this 285-room bungalow masterpiece that servants rode the length of its basement corridors by bicycle. Yet Lutyens also designed the chairs, the nursery furniture, the intricate chimneypieces, the coffered ceilings and the door handles in the form of lions couchant wearing the imperial crown. Not everything went according to plan in the new city. As committees quibbled and costs were cut (though they eventually reached £10 million), Lutyens complained that he was struggling with “Bedlampore”199—crazier even than Edward Lear’s “Hustlefussabad.”200 Inferior workmanship prompted the architect to assert that Indians should “be reduced to slavery and not given the rights of man at all.”201 Even that most snooty of memsahibs, Lady Grigg, who thought Indians subhuman, was embarrassed when the streets were all “named after us”—Queen Victoria Road, Freeman Terrace, “Willingdon Crescent and Curzon tiddly-um-pom.” She felt that New Delhi was a “triumph of egotism.”202Dissatisfied officials called their houses “Baker’s Ovens.” And Sir Herbert was also responsible for giving the Rajpath such a steep gradient that those who approached the Viceroy’s House along this route witnessed its partial disappearance. Lutyens memorably said that he had met his Bakerloo.

Still, New Delhi was the grandest monument ever erected to the British Empire. From the Viceroy’s House, its great copper dome modelled on Hadrian’s Pantheon, to the Jaipur Column, a pillar of victory inspired by that of Trajan, it was an image of dominion. From the avenues of British lions to the clapperless stone bells, intended to counteract the Hindu belief that bells tolled the knell of dynasties, it was a metaphor of enduring strength. Lutyens spelled out its purpose graphically in 1914, when he proposed that the inscription on the Viceroy’s House should read: “Govern them and lift them up for ever.” It was a matter of supreme irony that the whole concept was formulated at a time when the Empire stood on the brink of Armageddon. Moreover, as New Delhi rose over the next two decades the imperial ideal it stood for grew increasingly moribund, as if to fulfil Curzon’s prediction that the city would become a “gilded phantom”203 of the Raj. The administrator Sir Montagu Butler, mindful of the Indian prophecy that he who built a city at Delhi would lose it, and aware that nothing could withstand the surging tides of nationalism, called New Delhi “the ruins.”204 “Tiger” Clemenceau, who visited India to shoot tigers after the war, said that it would be “the finest ruin of them all.” By mistake George V had laid the foundation stone of the new capital in a cemetery. The city’s formal inauguration two decades later—in 1931, the year in which Gandhi (to Churchill’s disgust) strode up the steps of the Viceroy’s House to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor—was less a fanfare than a requiem. One witness described it as “the funeral of our Indian Empire.”205

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