In This Review

The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj
The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj
By David Gilmour
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006, 416 pp

This book is a wonderful example of how a historian can bring to life the atmosphere and culture of the past by describing in rich detail the motivations and calculations of those who set the tone of a world that once was. Gilmour captures the spirit of life in the sharply defined spheres of Queen Victoria's court and the government in London, the viceroy's circle in South Asia, and the district offices where British civil servants met Indian subjects on a daily basis. He skillfully depicts the peculiar mixture of proper manners and gentlemanly practices and the legal and bureaucratic standards of one of the world's great civil services. The mass of details that Gilmour has collected suggests that British and Indian cultures were a natural fit, as though they were destined to share a common history. The title of the book succinctly captures his idea that the British colonizers operated as though they were a part of the Indian caste system -- thus garnering the mystique of authority without having to rely unduly on force. There was, however, a basic ambiguity over the goal of British rule: at times, it was to prepare Indians for their ultimate self-rule; at other times, it was to maintain the British empire indefinitely.