Sahib, p.67Richard Holmes
Zahir-ud-din Muhammad (Babur) 38–9
zamindars 40, 53
zenanas 439, 440, 441
Zhob Valley Field Force 127, 165
Zoffany, John, Colonel Mordaunt’s Cock Match 443, 449
Ideas, interviews & features …
About the author
Conquerors Are Like the Wind
Travis Elborough talks to Richard Holmes
Your book is suffused with an enormous affection and respect for the Indian subcontinent and the generations of soldiers who served there. When and where did the idea for Sahib first come to you?
Well, I’d always seen Redcoat, Tommy and Sahib as a trilogy. I had the idea seven years or eight years or so ago to do three books which didn’t look chronologically at campaigns or battles or the development of the British army in any academic sense but instead looked at portions of the British military experience. The first, which was Redcoat, would examine soldiering in the age of the horse and musket, and the next was going to be on the Western Front in the First World War, and the third was always going to be about India. They’d be books of the same sort; they’d be thematic. I was going to base them all, as much as I could, on what people actually said at the time, but they weren’t necessarily going to be what I would call ‘epaulet history’.
The Mutiny appears in the book as a sort of shadowy constant presence; it’s painted almost as the pivotal moment, or tipping point, after which British India is never quite the same again. Am I right to think that your sympathies really lie with what might be referred to as Georgian British India? You seem quite critical of the Victorian imperial ideal of India that takes hold after the Mutiny, with its missionaries et al.
Yes, I think that’s a perfectly fair assessment. I believe there was something in what we might call Georgian India that I do rather admire. I think that we were far less prepared then to judge people on their religion or their race. We were much better at mixing and better at achieving that cultural synthesis. You only have to read William Dalrymple’s White Mughals – you could have White Mughals in the mid-eighteenth century but you couldn’t have them in the mid-nineteenth century. There was something attractive in a land where Europeans mixed relatively freely with the locals. And in a way, while I try not to get too critical about it, I do feel there is a sniffy feel to Victorian India. That’s partly because of the missionaries and partly because of the memsahibs, but in a way India couldn’t have been won and held without the European women who so loyally supported their men. Still, they did bring with them this tendency to pigeonhole people in a way that the Georgians, perhaps, didn’t. So, yes, I do prefer the eighteenth century with its gentlemen who went home and dressed in the mughal style and smoked the hookah and lived with ladies that we slightly unkindly call bibis – though many of them were magnificent and wives by any other name – I regret that loss.
You comment that Waterloo was won on the plains of India as much as the playing fields of Eton. Do you think, conversely, that the stability in Europe that followed Waterloo, which allowed the British army to devote itself to protecting colonial dominions, was also an important factor in Britain retaining India?
In a sense that’s true, but I feel that the British army tended to be an army which never had the imperative of continental war, in quite the way that, say, the French or German army did. The British navy certainly had that imperative; it had to be a major sea power because the British navy was absolutely central to Britain’s national survival, in a way that the army actually wasn’t. However there were times, of course, that the army was vital. And yes, of course, Waterloo was important, but there were more non-British soldiers under Wellington’s command that day than there were British; and because we didn’t have to maintain a full continental army, with all the paraphernalia of fortresses that went with it, we created a different army that was very good at the small change of war and tremendously good at detail.
In Sahib you give us a sense that Wellington could be rather begrudging about the contributions, at least in India, that those non-British troops made – virtually ignoring the sepoys, for example, in his reports from the Battle of Assaye. This brings us slightly back to our earlier point, perhaps, but the military commanders in the book you appear to admire most are men like John Nicholson who, though brutal, have more respect for the indigenous soldiers and a firm grasp of the importance of local tribal customs and loyalties.
I suppose I admire those characters that Charles Allen calls the ‘soldier sahibs’, the political officers, who were military officers by title and uniform, but who ran great sections of India. And often they did so by embodying colonial characteristics we are now often repelled by. If we take the case of John Nicholson, it’s easy to see this man with his pale face and grey eyes that apparently shone like a tiger’s, and say, ‘Oh, the man’s brutal.’ But there was in the enormous power of Nicholson’s personality, his extraordinary ability to make decisions about countries the size of Wales or Scotland in an instant – and fit the action to the word – something which I do find impressive.
I think we often tend in looking at figures like Nicholson in too much critical detail to miss the fact that they were extraordinary protean figures who burst across India and who, ultimately, had a benign effect. Yes, of course Nicholson would kill you if you crossed him, but his aim was to bring peace and stability and, dare I say it, civilisation. That he did well, and I have much sympathy with that.
One cannot but have sympathy with the manner of his death – mortally wounded in the storming of Delhi, and then dying sweltering in the ascent on Delhi Ridge and never flinching, horribly gut shot. Yet when he heard that the general commanding the force might well retire, he was still able to say, ‘Thank God, I have strength enough to shoot him if I have to,’ and knowing Nicholson, he meant it!
There’s also a quote in the book from Henry Daly where he says, ‘As I move through the country with its scores of chiefs, heads, clans, brawny people, it seems how much our tenure and strength depend upon personality.’ ‘It’s clear that this idea of ‘personality’ is one of the central themes of Sahib, isn’t it?
Yes, I think it is. I have to say I hadn’t come across Henry Daly until I started the book and then I found myself enormously drawn to the man. Now, he was of course giving us his personal and ideal view of a rule that was based upon personality. It was a rule based upon cultural understanding, being able to speak the languages and knowing the culture you were dealing with. When you had people who met all the right criteria, who could converse and who did understand, I think that even when we look back across the long glacis of history it was often not a bad rule. And it became a less good one when people didn’t bother to speak the languages and didn’t understand what they were doing. Riding up to police an empire, as it were, rather than being part of it.
I quite agree, but don’t the changes to British rule in India perhaps merely reflect broader shifts in European attitudes? The 1850s – the time of the Mutiny – is, after all, the period when notions of national and racial identity really come to the fore; we have the formation of Italy and Germany, for instance, and slightly later, theories by people like Francis Galton.
In that context, I’d say that India was a far more complicated place than any European could have expected. I quote the instructions given to British troops going to India which were something like, ‘Don’t run away with the idea that there is actually anything called India. There is no common language or common culture.’ Even now travelling across India I am always struck by the extraordinary diversity of the place, and by India now of course we mean India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. And while you had nations coalescing in Europe, India never came together in quite the same way. It remained that riot of colour and diversity. The Raj put a richly coloured cloak over it but never wholly changed it.
I am drawn to a quote, I think it’s from Neville Chamberlain, a classic soldier sahib, where an old chief says to him, ‘You conquer
At one point you describe the tremendous formality of the British in Madras. Isn’t it rather strange that a people so obsessed with maintaining a highly tiered, ritualised society – even in India – should then fail to understand the significance of caste and as a consequence issue Enfield rifles whose greasy cartridges caused outrage among the sepoys?
What frequently happens with caste, it seems to me, is that one often understands one’s own caste system but fails to understand other people’s, and that’s precisely what happened in India. You could very well say that what happened with the British in India is that they brought with them a caste system which existed in the United Kingdom. They developed it in India and maintained it to a degree that was visibly old fashioned by comparison with the class system back in Britain. And yet at the same time they didn’t understand the Indian caste system. What they really never grasped is that whatever your status as Englishman in India, to a devout Hindu you were always ritually unclean – and you can see why grasping that is unattractive. Even though I am Governor General of British India and a mighty figure and peer of the realm, that humble man crouching at my gate regards me as an unclean being – you can see why taking on the caste system was so difficult!
I think the issue of the Enfield rifles is not simple, and not clear-cut. To say that the Mutiny was caused by a violation of caste is an oversimplification. People had been handling similar cartridges for some time. Going back to your earlier question – had we had more officers who understood their men better, who listened and felt seismically those undercurrents that exist in military units whatever their race or caste this might not have happened. Had their officers felt what was happening to their men, the Mutiny might not have happened in the same way.
From dumdum bullets to the word ‘loot’, Sahib makes plain that the cultural exchange between India and Britain went both ways, though I couldn’t help feeling that you took rather a benign view of the latter – particularly where a slice of the spoils might ensure a greater commitment from the soldiers to any given campaign.
Nowadays, perhaps through the novels of Patrick O’Brian, we tend to think of prize money as being an exclusively naval phenomenon, but of course it wasn’t. Throughout history there always was a substantial financial element to soldiering, which you can’t get away from. Armies were seldom held together by a belief in their cause alone. There was almost always a financial interest. These days we would hope that the soldiers get well paid and well looked after, but then it was in part because men could make their fortunes. You could go off on a campaign as a private soldier and emerge with some legitimate prize money that would buck your life up – you could come back to England and have raised yourself, respectably, by a whole social class. And many soldiers, mistrustful of bureaucracy and delays, simply short-circuited the prize money system by looting.
And, finally, while you were researching this book what most surprised or interested you about soldiering in India?
The thing that surprised me and interested me – and given time I’d like to examine further – were the Company’s Europeans. These were the people who decided to spend twenty-five, thirty years in India, who became professional soldiers in the most professional sense. They didn’t fit comfortably into many of those clichés about the British in India. Here were people who, in terms of social background, tended to be better educated than those who joined the British army. They were, at the risk of dying young and getting ghastly diseases, likely to get a better life in India. Often they simply slipped sideways into one of those administrative jobs in the ordnance department. I’d love to do more work on them because they are the category of ‘military artisan’ that historians don’t usually spend much time on because they are not officers or soldiers of the classic sort, and mercenaries isn’t quite right, but they are military specialists, and fascinating ones at that.
About the book
To the Tuck of Drum at Wandiwash
By Richard Holmes
IT IS ALWAYS DANGEROUS, I think, to have grand ideas about being an author. After all, writing is work, and hard work too. It is compulsive drudgery, domestic isolation and fevered dreams laced with occasional (and often delusive) satisfaction at a phrase well turned or a chapter neatly concluded. The sheer, mind-blowing euphoria of finishing a book is replaced almost immediately by an uneasy feeling of emptiness, and the arrival of the first finished copy of any book always reveals the infelicitous phrase or inexcusable error that somehow slipped past you in the proofs. Yet (and here an analogy with port is painfully appropriate) however much I know how much the process will hurt I can never resist the opportunity of embarking upon it again.
In my case it is not about money – or perhaps, more honestly, not mainly about money. Nor is it about the bubble reputation, for an approving letter from a reader always pleases me more than a good notice from a reviewer who has evidently not understood the book or, as is all too often the case, has not had time to read it properly. In part it is because, however little we like to admit it, many of us have one eye fixed on immortality, and when the Grim Reaper comes to my door (and I hope he will leave the visit as long as he decently can) I will at least know that I have done something which may transcend my Biblical three score years and ten. But it is really because I have a passion for my subject which age has not wearied nor the years condemned. I seldom slide the lid off a box of documents without my heart beating faster, and even now, sitting in a reading room with earnest scholars heads-down around me, I sometimes look up, savour the moment, and thank God for the privilege.
The process of deciding what to write next is rarely simple. You are going to be stuck with the subject for a year or three, and so you ought to love it, for bald obligation is a hard taskmaster when the muse has flown, the deadline looms, and family life and the day job justly clamour for attention. I decided to write Redcoat, Tommy and Sahib not because of any complex intellectual process or careful search for those gaps in the literature which authors often seek to fill, but because (and I can almost seize the moment when it happened) I simply knew that I wanted to write about the British soldier and three distinct aspects of his evolution.
‘The process of deciding what to write next is rarely simple. You are going to be stuck with the subject for a year or three, and so you ought to love it, for bald obligation is a hard taskmaster when the muse has flown, the deadline looms, and family life and the day job justly clamour for attention.’
As the idea hardened in my mind, long before I teased it out into synopses, I knew that the books would be different in flavour even if they were similar in terms of approach and source material. Redcoat would be easiest, for it was easy to become fond of that army of red serge and pipeclayed crossbelts. I would be revisiting battlefields that I had first known as a young man, and again meeting old friends like Kincaid and Costello, Harris and Wheeler, those busy diarists of the Napoleonic Wars. Tommy would unquestionably be the hardest. Indeed, had I known when I began the book just how painful I would find the process I am not sure that I would ever have had the courage to start. The subject of the First World War still polarises not simply professional h
‘I decided to write Redcoat, Tommy and Sahib not because of any complex intellectual process or careful search for those gaps in the literature which authors often seek to fill, but because I simply knew that I wanted to write about the British soldier and three distinct aspects of his evolution.’
Sahib was never going to be as painful as Tommy nor as familiar as Redcoat. I knew the Indian subcontinent relatively well, from a first visit in 1976 to recent trips in the footsteps of the future Duke of Wellington, and I had ridden a curmudgeonly grey Afghan pony across a great tract of the North-West Frontier. There were several familiar friends from Redcoat, most notably John Shipp, twice commissioned from the ranks, earning his own immortality before the ramparts of Bhurtpore. There were occasions that found Mr Atkins at his sweaty, foul-mouthed, dark-humoured and powder-grimed best, going steadily forward to the tuck of drum at Wandiwash and Buxar, and carrying the Sikh entrenchments by the blind fury of his assault at Sobraon. It was hard not to admire some of those soldier sahibs, political officers acting as baby proconsuls, keeping whole provinces safe by the strength of their wills and the force of their personalities. True, there were moments when their uncompromising rectitude gave me pause for thought, and although I am more for than against John Nicholson, those grey eyes still make me feel profoundly uneasy.
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