The Tears of the Rajas: Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India 1805-1905

By Ferdinand Mount, Simon & Schuster Ltd, 784 pages, $26.40

Few people in Britain understood their Indian empire while it was going on, apart from those who had served there, preferably all their adult lives. That’s why when the latter retired back home they felt alienated from their erstwhile compatriots, and took to living in little cantonments or high-class ghettos, such as Cheltenham or large parts of Surrey and Fife.

Ferdinand Mount has discovered that some of his forebears belonged to this sub-caste of Britons — specifically, Lowland Scots, who were the most “imperial” of the four British nations at the time — though his generation seems to have reintegrated with upper-class British mainstream society since.

Perhaps more interesting, though it should have no real relevance to modern politics, David Cameron shares much of the same ancestry, as was revealed a few years ago in a priceless “Sunday Times” headline: “By Jingo, PM’s family killed for the empire.”

The Low family, which is Mount and Cameron’s shared connection, apparently participated in some really quite atrocious events in India in the 19th century, including mass killings. It’s this particular line of “servants” of British India that provides the connecting thread of this book, although occasionally peripherally. (The interesting question in the early chapters, for example, describing the mutinies of 1807 and 1809 — the first by Indians, the second by their European officers — is why the young John Low, who ought to have been there, wasn’t.)

As a way of bringing a particular era and theatre of British history alive, this works wonderfully well. Mount interweaves family and general history together vividly. He mainly, of course, presents the “imperial” point of view, but that’s worth trying to empathise with: even ex-colonial subjects, or their children, need to understand what motivated those who came to take over their countries and their lives in the age of empire.

Mount doesn’t have a simple answer for that. They were “in parts greedy and brutal, in other parts decent and dedicated in an unobtrusive way”, but all the time racked by “nagging doubt about what they were doing in India at all ... and what ultimately this distant straggling Empire was for and how long it would last and whether it deserved to last”.

About General John Low, one of his major characters, Mount writes that “at no time do you have the feeling that he was spurred on by a sense of imperial mission. He wanted, if possible, to do his duty, that was all”. In other words, they were under the control of forces far beyond themselves and this explains — if it’s any kind of explanation at all — their rampaging through the East (Indonesia here as well as India) in the service of His or Her Britannic Majesty, whether their Britannic Majesties wanted it or not (some of it was unauthorised).

This is not to say that the book in any way glorifies or even condones British imperialism. Mount pulls no punches in describing not only the military brutality of the East India Company’s conquests but also the venality of its servants, the hypocrisy of its agents, their “unashamed looting in the name of culture” (for museums back in Britain), and, certainly early on, the moral licentiousness.

The battle descriptions are both swashbuckling and awful (“the slither and suck of the bayonet in and out of a stranger’s guts”), and accounts of the punishments meted out to rebels after the several “mutinies” put down by the British in these years hardly spare the reader’s sensitivities.

Here is one example, a description of “shooting from guns” (a favourite means of execution): “The blackened head of the victim often shot high in the air and came down amongst the crowd. The firing party would find their uniforms and sun helmets spotted with sticky particles of flesh.”

On the other hand, Mount’s Scots are not unalloyed villains. Some are incredibly courageous in battle, such as Colonel Rollo Gillespie, his “red hair crackling with energy”, whose “life was not so much a military career as a series of uncontrolled explosions”, until he charged bull-headedly at an impregnable Maratha fortress one last time, was shot through the heart and brought back to Meerut in a barrel of rum to be buried. In their spare hours they can be both gentle and genteel, “dabbling”, for example, in “music, painting and poetry”.

As politicians, they were often far wiser than their superiors back in Britain: with regard to the Kingdom of Oudh, ruled in 1837 by a king portrayed here as a corrupt, unpredictable, drunken sot, John Low was insistent that if he had to be deposed, then it should be in favour of his natural heir, however imperfect he might turn out, on the grounds that “the mass of the inhabitants of this country would be better pleased at having a Ruler of their own than to be transferred to the direct Government of British officers, however pure and just they might be ... This is in fact a common feeling that exists all over the known world, viz: a dislike of foreign masters and new usages”.

It’s a pity that the government of India failed to heed this when they annexed Oudh to the British crown in 1856, thus helping to set in train the events that provoked, the following year, the greatest Indian mutiny of them all.

That mutiny’s eventual suppression is the high point, or plateau, of Mount’s book; a long, vivid narration of a horrendous event, in which two of John Low’s sons — Malcolm and Robert — had marginal roles, before they went on to bigger things in their adopted country, the former as an administrator, the latter as a soldier like his father.

General John (Sir John from 1862) was past it by then, “if not certifiably gaga”, writes Mount; but remembered “as a kind-hearted honourable man, ripe in knowledge of the native character, and friendly to the support of Asiatic dynasties”.

The book winds down rather quickly after this, not really covering the latter half of the period indicated in its subtitle; but then those years, of direct British government rule — after the catastrophe of the East India Company’s Great Mutiny — may not suit Mount’s brilliant pen so well. There were fewer Rollo Gillespies around then.

–Guardian News & Media Ltd

Bernard Porter’s “The Lion’s Share: A History of British Imperialism 1850 to the Present” is published by Routledge.