Sir John Low finally hung up his helmet seventy years after joining the Madras army in 1804, having served the East India Company as soldier, jailer, agent and councillor. As a rookie lieutenant, his regiment mopped up in Mysore when the British took over the old kingdom of Tipu Sultan. He helped see off the Marathas at the battle of Mahidpur in 1817, and kept their chief minister, Baji Rao, under house arrest on the banks of the Ganges. For decades Low minded maharajas, as the company’s man on the spot in Rajasthan, Gwalior, Lucknow and Hyderabad. His methods varied. Usually quiet diplomacy sufficed, but he didn’t flinch at clinching a deal with cannon fire, as the royal family of Awadh found out in 1837. Low capped his career with a spell on the governor-general’s Council in Calcutta in the 1850s, before company and country went up in the smoke of the great rebellion of 1857-58. When the dust settled, Low was soon forgotten. He moved back to Britain, to suburban Norwood, and out of history. John Kaye, his friend and neighbour, did give him an honourable mention – ‘the Nestor of the political service’ – in his famous chronicle of the mutiny. That aside, he disappeared from view.
Until the summer of 2010, that is, when it was revealed that Low’s family was distantly related to David Cameron’s. Shortly after the prime minister returned from his first official visit to India, the Sunday Times broke the story that Low’s eldest son, Malcolm, had taken part in the brutal suppression of the rebels in 1857, leaving a graphic account in his letters home of killings and public hangings, which, the paper pointed out, would be seen as war crimes today. Cameron’s press office declined to comment. After all, the PM is apparently also related to Moses, Catherine the Great, William IV and Boris Johnson, and in 2013 was outed as the first cousin six times removed of a West Indian slave-owner. But one of Low’s other descendants – and another of Cameron’s relatives – was ready to respond. Ferdinand Mount is the great-great-grandchild of John Low (and a cousin of the prime minister’s mother). In The Tears of the Rajas, he doesn’t try to set the family record straight, but blends the history of British India with the story of the Lows and their immediate kith and kin.
Readers may sigh at the author’s promise of an ‘epic saga of love, war, intrigue and treachery’. Mount has written some historical fiction: in Jem (and Sam) he invented a 17th-century forebear, Jeremiah Mount, who rivalled Pepys as a diarist, and he has Wolf-Halled his way around the French Revolution and the Crimean War. Here he sticks to the facts, although there is some poetic licence: John Low is the centre of attention, even when he’s off-stage. As a young man, Low just missed being caught up in the mutinies at Vellore and Ellore, and in 1811 he saw 15 minutes of battle at Cornelis as part of Lord Minto’s expedition to take Java from the Dutch. Mount gives each of the three episodes a chapter, despite Low’s minimal involvement in the action. In another chapter, mutton is literally dressed as lamb, when Low is embroiled in a mundane dispute about the quality of the meat supplied to his regiment. By the time Low gets a part – taking Baji Rao into custody – we are a quarter of the way through the book. Fortunately, Low soon meets two men who were making history, rather than just watching it go by: Mountstuart Elphinstone, the British resident at Pune, charged with negotiating a settlement with the Maratha leaders, and John Malcolm, who led the troops into battle when the jaw-jaw failed. Like Low, both were Scots, and both had been groomed in their carrot and stick ways by the Wellesley brothers (Arthur, the future duke of Wellington, and Richard). They took Low under their wing. His career as company handyman had begun.
Men like Low were crucial to company rule in India. When he arrived in Jaipur in 1825 on his first big posting, the company’s resources were at full stretch. Two decades’ worth of military campaigns had depleted its coffers, just at a time when its army was needed to protect the northern frontiers of British territory. The revenues of Madras, Bombay and Bengal struggled to cover the cost of incursions into Nepal and Assam. Low’s mission was to keep rulers of independent states sweet so that they might yield men and money to help fight the company’s foes in the north and north-west. By the early 1830s, when Low moved on to Lucknow, the screw was being tightened further. The company’s monopoly on trade was ended, and the lucrative export markets of India were thrown open. It was rumoured that the governor-general, Lord William Bentinck, planned to demolish the Taj Mahal and sell off the marble to top up his treasury. In the event the army bore the brunt of his economies. Monitoring maharajas therefore became even more important, and looking after the wealthiest ones imperative. Two of the ripest pickings were the kingdom of Awadh – modern-day Uttar Pradesh, then the granary of India – and Hyderabad, with its rich cotton fields. The trick, as Low learned, was to get rulers to stick to their treaty agreements, and, in the fickle world of Indian courts, to get treaty states to stick by their rulers. Low succeeded on both counts. As resident in Hyderabad he persuaded the nizam to assign the Berar cotton districts (about a fifth of the whole state) to British control. And in Lucknow, when a pretender emerged to contest the succession, he called in a regiment to blow open the gates of the royal palace and put the rightful heir on the throne.
By the time he arrived in Lucknow, Low had a family in tow. The shift from company man to family man gives Mount’s story a second wind. Through marriage to Augusta Shakespear, Low had nine children, of whom seven survived. The two eldest boys, Malcolm and Robert, enjoyed Indian careers of their own, and his eldest daughter, Charlotte, married the son of Sir Thomas Metcalfe, the British resident at Delhi. Mount has always been intrigued by cliques, elites and who knows who. The Shakespears were connected to the Thackerays (Augusta was the novelist’s cousin), and with the Metcalfes also thrown in, Mount is able to weave more tales from the Raj into his book. We meet Richmond Shakespear, who went undercover in the first Afghan War in 1839, and later was an officer in the British armies that conquered Sind and the Punjab. We are taken to the heart of the Indian rebellion of 1857-58, where we find the young Edward Thackeray, who gained a Victoria Cross for gallantry in the siege of Delhi. We encounter Theo Metcalfe, who gained a different sort of reputation as the bloodthirstiest of the British officials and soldiers who carried out reprisals after Delhi had fallen. And we finally catch up with Low’s oldest sons, whose exploits during the mutiny first led Mount to dig into his past. In 1857 both men were near the epicentre of the revolt: William Malcolm Low as a civil revenue officer in Meerut, and Robert Low as a lieutenant in Delhi, where like Edward Thackeray he joined the British forces massing on the ridge above the city where Bahadur Shah Zafar had reclaimed his imperial title. Delhi retaken, Robert took part in the relief of Lucknow, and then marched south to hunt down Tantia Tope, one of the most elusive of the rebel leaders. Mount recounts at length how William Malcolm turned from counting heads to breaking necks, as he joined the counter-offensive across the northern plains. Low’s sons saw more fighting in one year than their father had in a lifetime of service. Perhaps as an act of expiation, Malcolm wrote it all down and sent the gruesome details to his father.
The Lows were Tories of the paternalist type, preferring the velvet fist in the iron glove to the codes and laws favoured by liberal modernisers. One of the virtues of Mount’s book is to recover the inherent Toryism of British rule in India. Historians have focused far too much on two brief moments of British liberalism: the land reforms carried out by the Whig Lord Cornwallis in the 1790s, and the utilitarian experiments of the 1830s, when English was adopted as the language of administration and ambitious plans were unveiled for codifying the law. These were the exceptions that proved the rule. From the Wellesleys to the Marquess of Linlithgow, the last civilian viceroy before 1947, India was run by Tories, not liberals. The duke of Wellington’s generals filled many of the top posts in India in the first half of the 19th century, and after that the English court and the Tory aristocracy of Ireland and Scotland furnished the governing elite: Dalhousie, Canning, Mayo and Dufferin. The liberal quartet of the Mills (father and son), Macaulay and Henry Maine wrote a lot about India, and even more has been written about them. But theirs was largely an India of the imagination. The Mills never went; Macaulay lasted four years and Maine six. India could provoke radicalism: take Annie Besant or George Orwell. Or it could harden conservatism. But liberal designs for India always sounded better in London than they did in Calcutta. Very few survived the long journey east.
Gnarled, no-nonsense company colonels dominate Mount’s book. Their India has been called a ‘garrison state’ and not without cause. Most of Low’s generation came under the influence of the dotty Russophobes who, fearing invasion by the tsars’ armies and allies, argued for a fortified border stretching from the mouth of the Indus (modern day Karachi) all the way round to the Irrawaddy delta in Burma. But mostly Low and his like respected the independence of the territories under their charge, and resisted outside western influences, especially from the evangelical missionaries who were bible-bashing their way around northern India. Company colonels tended to leave Hindu and Muslim culture alone, and took an antiquarian interest in local history and customs. Sir John Malcolm – military veteran, statesman, historian and Tory MP – was their guru, his policy of indirect rule over India their mantra. Mount labours the point that such company men were invariably Scottish; more important, they remained a clannish bunch through intermarriage and the friend-and-favour system of patronage rife at the time.
In this company, Low stands out for his long service, and not much else. He had a knack for being somewhere else when shots were fired, a matter of wry amusement for Mount, but many of his colleagues did lose limbs. The conqueror of the Sikhs, Henry Hardinge, had only one hand, but was ably supported by his son Charles, who was missing a leg. Low wasn’t a soldier-scholar, unlike his mentors Malcolm and Elphinstone. Although he was better educated than either and knew Persian (still dominant in large parts of India), he never wrote anything about India. He seems to have lacked curiosity. His longest billet was at Lucknow, at the end of a period of renaissance in Islamic scholarship and sciences such as astronomy, but he was untouched by it all. Rajasthan, which with its feudal chivalry had fascinated the company agent James Tod, doesn’t seem to have interested Low. And he never turned his long experience into punditry at home although the final years of company rule were littered with old India hands taking sides very publicly. During Low’s lengthiest furlough, between 1842 and 1847, policy in India swung wildly out of control, with the Opium War in China and the conquest of Sind and parts of the Punjab. He pottered about his estate in Fife, attracting attention only when his runaway horse crashed into a china shop in Cupar and destroyed all its wares. Plate-smashing was not Low’s style. When John Malcolm’s maxims were cast aside and headstrong governor-generals such as Dalhousie turned to invading independent Indian states, Low did object, in a series of carefully worded minutes. He was ignored. Braver men might have persisted, but Low was as burdened by debt as the company he served, and refused to bite the hand that fed him.
Low came home for good in 1858. His two elder sons stayed on. Malcolm returned to being a civil servant until invalided out in 1874. Robert, now a lieutenant-colonel like his father, served in the Second Afghan War and later, as a general, led the line to break the siege of Chitral. He returned to England in 1905, and ended his career as keeper of the crown jewels in the Tower of London; the Koh-i-Noor, that emblem of conquest in India, was one of the gems under his watch. Mount suggests that the India shaped by the Lows faded away when company rule ended in 1858. The liberals were back in government at home, and the new viceroy took advice not from military men, but from economic buffs such as James Wilson, the founding editor of the Economist and the genius behind the new system of finance in India after 1858. The two armies of India (company and royal) became one, and competitive entrance for soldiers and civilians replaced recruitment by patronage. In fact it was the Tories who sorted out India after the rebellion. Lord Derby’s government managed the transfer of power from the company to the crown during the Tories’ short spell in office in 1858. Another Tory, Stafford Northcote, was the co-author of the civil service reforms of 1854, now written into the new legislation on the government of India. Unifying the Indian army was a pet project of Prince Albert’s, and on his death, the baton passed to the commander-in-chief of the army, the queen’s cousin, the distinctly unprogressive duke of Cambridge.
The rebellion of 1857-58 was a turning point nonetheless: Indian nationalism was quelled for a generation. Swords were turned into ploughshares as the British army in India started laying down railway networks, making rivers navigable, and ports and dockyards more efficient. New generations of empire families – Beveridges and Kiplings – arrived to join those like the Collets and Cottons who had been in India for ever. They came as civil servants, teachers and engineers, not as soldiers and translators. Now that India was secure from within – from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin (Kanyakumari), as misty-eyed veterans liked to boast – it was a captive part of the pax Britannica. Silver, cotton, jute, tea as well as taxes and tariffs were extracted from the subcontinent. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, just a few years after Britain and other European powers forced their way into the ports of China, India became the central arch of the British imperial economy in the east. Bankers pitched in, including more ancestors of David Cameron: two of his great-great-grandfathers. In London, Emile Levita rose to be a director of the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China; Ewen Cameron joined the fledgling Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Corporation as its Calcutta agent. HSBC? Perhaps that’s one family connection the prime minister can do without.