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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 March, 2005, 17:50 GMT
Eton, the Raj and modern India

By Alastair Lawson
BBC News

"While we hold onto India, we are a first rate power. If we lose India, we will decline to a third rate power. This is the value of India."

Lord Cornwallis accepting the surrender of Tipu Sultan's forces
The Eton display will feature the good, the bad and the ugly

So spoke Lord Curzon, one of 11 viceroys of British India (from 1898 to 1905) who was educated at Eton College, one of England's top private schools.

The school also prides itself on providing five governor-generals who served in India, and three high commissioners after independence.

Now the strong links between the famous "playing fields of Eton" - attributed as a key reason by the Duke of Wellington for Britain's victory in the Battle of Waterloo - and the Raj will be celebrated at an exhibition at the school, due to be staged in April.

The aim of the display is to reveal the benefits of the Raj - while exposing its warts as well.

Benefits of colonialism

"Eton has had a link with India since the early days of British colonialism to the present," says the event organiser, Andrew Robinson, who teaches history at the school.

What fun it is to shoot mutineers. It's almost like shooting partridges
Old Etonian in 1858

"Those links have been various and have worked both ways. Since the middle 19th century, Indians have come to Eton, and many do so now.

"India has been the place for the Raj, and for business, and for mission - it remains the case that many Etonians wish to travel there, possibly to put something back so far as the relationship has gone," he said.

Mr Robinson says that he sometimes encourages his pupils to look upon British rule in India in much the same way that contemporary Britons should look upon Roman rule in most of what is now England and Wales.

Colonial rule in both cases brought benefits, he argues. In India the positives included a unifying influence in the country, a functioning civil service and a basic infrastructure.

"I like to think in India I find traces of what some have called the love affair between our two countries, stronger and more durable than the at times violent relationship of rulers and ruled.


"In teaching British India at school, it is important not to obscure the warts in the portrait, but we should not perhaps ignore the plus points either, " he says.

Mr Robinson has been gathering documents, photographs, memorabilia and film footage - from old boys or their families - for next month's display.

Artefacts and documents rarely before seen in the public domain have been unearthed, including a picture of the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, riding his horse in 1939 - the day that he announced that India, like Britain, was at war with Germany.

Lord Linlithgow did not consult the Indian army before making his announcement.

Mr Robinson did not have to look too hard though to find exhibits for his display.

About turn

The school itself already has a large collection of portraits, sculpted busts and private correspondence from old boys who served in India.

Invitation to Eton dinner in India
Eton's connections with India continue to this day

It all amounts to an intriguing record of Old Etonians who served in India over the centuries.

Lords Curzon's pith helmet, lent by his family, is in the exhibition, as are artefacts relating to Lord Cornwallis, Governor General of India after defeating the forces of Tipu Sultan in 1792.

That victory represented a major about turn in Cornwallis's career, because he was blamed by many Britons for losing the Battle of Yorktown in 1781 which led to American independence.

Also on display are invitations to 4 June parties - traditional school functions - held by Lord Curzon in Simla, the British summer capital.

In 1901, 14 Old Etonians attended.

"But it would be misleading to say that Eton provided the people who ran the Raj: we certainly provided our fair share of leaders, but the day-to-day work of administering British India was not done by Old Etonians," Mr Robinson says.

The exhibition features an interview with Gaj Singh II, Maharajah of Jodhpur, who attended the school in the 1960s.

There is a memorial at Eton to Princes Victor and Frederick, Maharajah Duleep Singh's two sons who were at Eton in the 1870s.

The Punjabi maharajah was much admired by Queen Victoria. "Those eyes and those teeth are too beautiful," she is reported to have written.

Good, bad and ugly

Photographs have been discovered of Kumara Mangalam, chief of staff of the Indian military in the 1960s.

There is also correspondence from Peter Lawrence, an Eton teacher who taught at The Doon School, one of the best known private schools in India during the 1930s and 1940s. At that time the school's headmaster was AE Foot, also an Etonian.

Field Marshal Lord Roberts of Kandahar
Portrait of Field Marshal Lord Roberts of Kandahar

Eton has links with many other private schools in India today, such as Mayo College in the state of Rajasthan.

"The display features the good, the bad and the ugly," says Mr Robinson.

There is the diary entry from 1858 by a young man who had been at Eton, who wrote: 'What fun it is to shoot mutineers. It's almost like shooting partridges.' "

There are old photographs of Etonians going on tiger shoots, alongside new photographs of Etonians taking time during their gap years to help in poverty alleviation projects.

"It is this kind of work, the work of the future - rather than the successes and failures of the past - which most pupils now want to devote their energies," says Mr Robinson.

Here is a selection of readers' views on this column.

To Ari, India. We in modern Britain accept that our ancestors made mistakes during the colonisation of India and other countries, but when the colonists left these various countries when each one gained it's independence, Britain only left when a new government were installed to govern in it's place. It left foundations so that these countries may prosper under their own leadership. Whatever happened after the ships left is down to the individual peoples. Other former colonists such as France, Belgium and Spain did not, and just left the peoples to their own fates: Back to tribal and mob rule. Read your history books.
Simon S, UK

Britain gave India infrastructure? They must mean those railroads, those tools of plunder that moved resources and wonders from the Indain heartland to the coast and moved soldiers around in a brutally efficient manner. Yes the British gave India a lot, and took away a lot more. Indian history begins a lot earlier than the British arrival, Indian unity was there from the time of the Mauryas and the Greek wars. The British taught us red tape, ethnic racism, and of course divide and conquer.
Karan Awtani, Uk

I believe, on the whole, British rule was beneficial to India as compared to 700 year long Muslim rule. There were a few benevolent rulers like Akbar but most were not. British introduced the rule of law in India eventhough often that law was blatantly biased in their favor. Yes, they destroyed the textile industry but they also introduced railroads, post office. They also taught Indians to value their heritage. They deciphered the inscriptions on the Ashokan pillars. Now, all the Indians are proud of Ashoka but except in Buddhist circles his name was not known in India by Hindu and Muslim population. They gave us a secular court system replacing the religious courts of rulers. English language did much to unify India. The independence movement was started by English speaking Indians. I think it is safe to say that there are more pluses than minuses for both Britain and India during the Raj period. But I do not mean to imply that continued British Raj would have been better.
Laxmi Gupta, USA

British rule did do some good and some bad. It did bring Infrastructure, the reason was that it would help in administering the huge land, and business. It did bring some kind of modern civilised administration, military, economic norms, but the reasons were not to improve the lives of the people but for the benefit of there business. This sounds small when one looks at the violence it brought, and the religious divide that deepened, the exploitation, the discrimination, injustice, rewriting history as a made to order one, getting rich at India's expense.... and much more. Blood, division, impoverishment are the ones that strike me when I think of the Raj.
Nag, India

Every one who thinks British rule was good for India, I ask you only one question, imagine yourself today living in your own contry under the occupation of another country, treated like a sub-human and denied basic human rights. I am not sure what is more shameful, Britishers taking credit for India's success after 50 odd years of independence or Indians who agree with them. And all those who believe English is the sole reason for India's success in the 21st century will pretty soon be learning Chinese.
Sapan, India

The British followed a policy of divide and rule playing one community against the other ultimately creating India and Pakistan and plundered Indian wealth.Asia and Africa are still suffering the curse of Imperialism. There is nothing to be proud off.
Rashid, USA

Can you imagine India being what it is today if the Mughal rule had continued uninterrupted? Britain was, no doubt, a colonising, imperial nation. And as such, exploited India. However, as colonising nations go, Britain was a very progressive coloniser. Britain contributed immensly to India's infrastructure, unifying language, institutions, and most importantly, democracy. A balanced perspective is indeed in order.
Ruby Sahiwal, USA

I find it amusing that most of the anti British posts come from "Indians" living abroad. I think it would be fair to say most of them would not be there if it was not for the British installing an educational system. Even the so called nationalist leader Gandhi was educated in Britain. The British abolished barbaric practices reminiscent of the Taliban such as widow burning among others. The recent boom in outsourcing jobs to India is mainly due to the Indians command of English. As for the British dividing India, I don't recall an English man devising the caste system. Tyrannical rulers such as Auragzeb who tore down Hindu temples and imposed high taxes for Hindus were not of cockney origin. In fact the Hindus and Muslims were never more united under the British. They unity was brought upon by their unfounded hatred for the British. Once independence was guaranteed old feuds were once again started between the Hindus and the Muslims. This is hardly the fault of the English. If Gandhi and Nehru didn't alienate Jinah there probably would have never been a Pakistan or Bangladesh. They do not mention in the Indian textbooks that a few days after independence Nehru asked the British to manage the partition after Indian methods had failed thus saving lives. As for the British plundering India by producing goods cheaply and then selling them in the west at higher prices. The same is being continued, this time by Indian companies, and multinational corporations. It is pretty ironic that most of these nationalist Indians visit a British website for news on India. Face it gentlemen the British dragged Indians kicking and screaming into the modern world. Things could have been much worse we could have been a French colony!
Uday Dilip Kallianpur, USA

The Brit arrogance shows through again- may I ask whether the millions who starved in Bengal in a famine exacerbated by callous British administrators, woul appreciate the Eton exhibition? The British plundered India, impoverished millions of Indians, threw literacy to the winds( before the UK colonised India, India had a huge educated population with a plethora of teachers and educators in regional languages, the British abolished the system and forced education for a privileged few in English), made sure of a Hindu- Muslim divide, plundered India's natural resources, sent thousands of Indians to their death via organised murder through sham tribunals, hangings and conducted massacres using troops (Jallianwala Bagh anyone)? As an Indian Catholic with a keen interest in history, I am keenly aware of the brutality committed by the Raj, with the acquiescence of the British Govt against India- with hindus being dubbed as heathens. The British acts sicken me, as they should any civilised Christian. Andrew Robinson can take his denial and stuff it!
John De Souza, India

Did India benefit from the British Raj? Absolutely! Was it worth the price it paid? That is the real issue. I am not sure if I can persuade people to have an unanimous opinion on this issue in a few lines. However, I do hope that this display at Eton does not mislead the audience into believing that British colonialism was overall beneficial for the former colonies, even if it had a "few warts". Rather, the display should aim to underline the real tension, the benefits and the cost to the colonies, and help each person in the audience critically think on the issue. Without this, any attempt to tout the leadership skills of the former Etonians who played a significant role in the Raj, would seem, for the lack of better words, ignorant and arrogant. Not to mention that it would also fail to inspire the young Etonians of today who wish to develop into thoughtful leaders of the contemporary world.
Pankaj Saraf (My name was mis-spelt in the previous submission), USA

Any fool can crticize the British; but it takes a person of some maturity and respectable integrity to praise the British for the good they did in India. Were it not for the British India would have long endured as a continent of nations -- with more chiefs than Indians. Even at the time of Indian indpendence there were over 460 petty 'kings' and rajas. If the British achieved one thing, they gave the Indians an opportuity to unite as one country, inspite of the religous folly known as East and West Pakistan. Does any one remember what one Etonian said of Westernized Indians? " Out of place everywhere and at home nowhere." I know that feeling. So did Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru. I just quoted him. If Indians are reaping the English education harvest today, they owe a subtle debt to the British--Eton,et alia. Pradip Tara
Pradip Tara, U.S.A.

While it is helpful to view Eton's contribution to British imperialism through the lens of history, one, nonetheless, can't help but be put off and even vexed by the arrogance and lack of penance with which the school perpetuates vis-a-vis its curriculum and public relations. A mea culpa notwithstanding, perhaps a little more humility and grace - on the part of Eton - would do much to assuage critics and make its current reputation more palatable and representative of contemporary times.
Andrew Josias, US

As a first generation British-born Indian it would be an interesting to know of the contribution or participation of those of a similar background in the current days of Eton and into the future. One gets the picture of an old boys' school atmosphere of privilege. Are there many Indian nationals at Eton who will return to serve this emerging economy/world player in the future?
Herinder Singh Bassi, England

It is grotesque how a history teacher mentions the British providing a unifying influence on India. He chooses to ignore (or forget) the unification of India forged by various Indian dynasties over millennia. Britain bled India, divided India and impoverished India.
Ari, India

I was amazed at the BBC's temerity to mention "benefits and a few warts" of the British Raj in India. There were no benefits only warts. The whole British industrial revolution was funded by the blood of India. The British imposed stiff taxes on the Indian textile industry and virtually killed it. They forced the Indians to grow cotton, dyes in India and export it to Britain at cheap rates. It was the British landlord who starved the Indian farmers in Champaran that made Mahatma Gandhi launch a movement to protect them. The British re-wrote history to make themselves appear as those who brought civilization to India. It is adding to insult to injury to "celebrate" such events in Eton. The British should hang their heads in shame for their colonial past.
Edi R Shivaji, US

Are you suggesting that Britain is proud of their colonisation of the world, without realising that the reason for most of the problems in the world right now is due to the rude and arrogant British acts to take over and destroy other cultures?
Nishad Jayasundara, Sri Lanka

I don't think many Indians even give a passing thought to British public schools like Eton, Harrow etc. Those who can afford it, go to the US for studies. Whatever nostalgia exists, most of it is with the Brits.
S.Singh, USA/India

Fascinating, makes you incredibly proud as a nation to have such a massive influence on the cultivation of the world. It is important for the younger generation (myself included) to remember and revisit the work of our hard-working ancestors.
Kyle Webster, England

Although the British Raj has always been considered an awful blemish on India's glorious history, I found this article refreshing. It is imperative to take things into perspective and for us Indians to recognise that despite the unfairness of colonial rule, the British did bring to India infrastructure, a sense of organisation, and more importantly the English language. In a certain way, Britain played a role in developing India into what it is today. I would argue that Britain's love affair with India was a symbiotic relationship, in which both countries benefited form each other (perhaps Britain more than India, however).
Diya Nag, USA

It's a shame that Eton's history teacher, Mr Robinson, should describe years of racial violence, subjugation, rape and plunder as a few "warts" in the portrait of the Raj. Eton seems to be celebrating their colonial past when, in actual fact, they should be deploring it. Through their old-boy networks, Eton's pupils will go on to assume prominent positions in the world. From personal experience, it's shocking to see how many of these students continue to believe that colonialism was 'beneficial' for the Indian people.
Dr Greta Gabel, Germany

What a prophesy by Lord Curzon all that time ago! One hates to agree with such a blatantly imperial sentiment but one can't deny there is something in it. With the UK's policy of PC in all things and the general state of extreme apathy that exists, it is hard to imagine anything other than Lord Curzon being proved right. Especially as your average tabloid reader finds it difficult to read and write and still manages to feel superior to those of a different race!
Dee, Basel, Switzerland

Tattooed poet to take Eton post
10 Feb 05 |  Berkshire
Pupils play Eton at its own game
03 Dec 04 |  Berkshire
Eton head attacks 'bully' parents
24 Sep 04 |  Education
India opens new Raj display
16 Aug 04 |  South Asia
Row over Madras Raj college
04 Apr 03 |  South Asia

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