The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj by David Gilmour - review by John Keay

John Keay

Little Tin Gods

The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj


John Murray 328pp £25

Organising an empire doesn’t come cheap, but in the nineteenth century the manpower required to run India, compared to the prestige of ruling it, was modest. David Gilmour quotes Stalin: ‘that a few hundred Englishmen should dominate India’ was, according to the Russian leader, ‘ridiculous’. The same point was made both by critics keen to show up the submissive depths to which India had supposedly sunk and by apologists keen to extol the Olympian heights to which its foreign administrators aspired. In the ease with which a subcontinent of 300 million souls was directed by a shoestring administration, the British discovered a justification for their presence, a warm sense of satisfaction, and some nasty notions of superiority.

At any one time the ruling elite in fact numbered more like a thousand. To Kipling they were ‘little tin gods’ and to others ‘immortals’, ‘incorruptibles’ or the ‘twice-born’ brahmins of Anglo-Indian officialdom. As the covenanted servants of the Indian Civil Service (ICS), it is these paragons, during their long

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