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When Curzon ruled the Raj

William Dalrymple is the author of "White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India."

Nothing so clearly demonstrates the swaggering overconfidence of the British Raj at its late Victorian zenith as the existence of Simla -- the summer capital of the British Empire in India. Only a colonial elite ridiculously certain of itself could have contemplated ruling one-fifth of mankind, for seven months of the year, from a remote Himalayan village connected to the outside world by a single-track goat path.

Yet every April, when the heat of the burning plains became unbearable, the entire administrative machinery of the Raj packed up for the 1,200-mile trek from Calcutta to the hills. The viceroy and the commander in chief, the moguls of the civil service and the colonels of the line -- accompanied by hundreds of their memsahibs and children, files and desks, as well as great caravans of servants -- all clambered into carriages and palanquins and bullock carts and made their way up through the heat of the Punjab to a small hogback ledge, high in the Himalayas, where there lay a perfect re-creation of a stockbroker-Tudor Surrey village, perched on a mountain ridge only 100 miles from Tibet. It was as bizarre an undertaking as moving the entire apparatus of Washington to Boulder, Colo., for the summer: an absurd way to govern a vast country, even by Victorian British standards.

If there was one man who embodied this strange and eccentrically run European Empire in the East, it was Lord Curzon, who is generally regarded as the greatest of all the British viceroys in India. Curzon, born in 1859, personified all that was best, and much that was the worst, about British imperialism. On the positive side, he was a man of astonishing ability and integrity. A driven workaholic, he was diligent and creative, a brilliant intellect and an administrator of genius. A fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, he became a member of Parliament at the tender age of 27 and an undersecretary of state for India by his early 30s. He set off on annual trips exploring the entire width of Asia and wrote a series of definitive books on the politics of the countries he visited. He was made Queen Victoria’s viceroy in India, then probably the world’s most powerful appointed position, before he hit his 40th birthday. Atop his aerie, the viceroy was the spider at the heart of Simla’s web of spies and generals, imperial civil servants and smooth viceregal functionaries. From his chamber in Viceregal Lodge, the Great Game was directed: Intelligence reports detailing the movement of czarist spies in Central Asia were analyzed, and counter moves were planned with British agents being dispatched in disguise over the Khyber Pass into Tatary. Returning to England, Curzon became foreign secretary to George V and narrowly missed becoming prime minister shortly after World War I. He died in 1925.

Yet time and time again, Curzon’s remarkable energies and gifts were undermined by his flaws as a human being. While in many ways a genius, Curzon was also a crashing snob (both socially and intellectually), supremely arrogant, pompous to the point of caricature and nakedly ambitious with an off-putting certainly that he was a Man of Destiny. Famous at university for what one friend called his “enamelled self-assurance,” even before he had left Oxford a wag had written a rhyme about him that haunted him for the rest of his life:

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My name is George Nathaniel Curzon,

I am a most superior person,

My cheek is pink, my hair is sleek,

I dine at Blenheim once a week.

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Curzon hated what he called “this accursed doggerel,” yet his aristocratic hauteur was such that the rhyme retained its popularity to the end of his life. He described his position in Simla as like being “chained to a sort of middle-class suburb where there is no culture or conversation.” It was, concluded Curzon, “like dining every day in the housekeepers room with the butler and the lady’s maid.” If visiting minor European princes was “an unmitigated nuisance,” visiting the Indian maharajahs was little better, according to Curzon. The viceroy told Queen Victoria that the rana of Dholpur, for example, was “fast sinking into an inebriate and a sot,” that the maharajah of Patiala was “little better than a jockey,” while Maharajah of Holkar had “horrible vices.”

As viceroy, Curzon worked late into the night, reforming the creaking imperial administration of the subcontinent. The police, the universities, the provincial governments and the taxation system -- all were shaken up, updated and made fairer and more efficient. India’s ancient monuments were conserved and an archeological survey was set up to record and restore the glories of the past. As independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, put it: “After every other viceroy has been forgotten, Curzon will be remembered because he restored all that was beautiful about India.”

Yet Curzon’s successes were limited by his inability to trust and employ Indians -- the major critical failing of his administration. He saw his duty as administering India fairly; Indians, he believed, were simply not capable of doing so themselves. When asked why he did not appoint a single Indian to his advisory council, he replied, absurdly, that in the entire country of 300 million people, there was no single “native” fit for the post. He later let it be known that he thought the “highest ideal of truth is to a large extent a Western conception.” “Wherever peoples were living in backwardness and barbarism,” he wrote, “wherever ignorance and superstition is rampant, wherever Enlightenment and Progress is possible, wherever Duty and Self-sacrifice call -- there is the true summons of the Anglo-Saxon race.”

While he undoubtedly went about his work with honesty, industry and energy, he failed to see that Britain’s power was already ebbing. In just over 40 years, the Raj would be at an end. For that reason, he never worked to begin training Indians to administer themselves or create representative institutions and encourage Indian talent. He failed to see that democracy and Western ideas of freedom should be the principal British gift to India and that if properly implanted, they would ultimately end with the peaceful withdrawal of Britain from India. For all his ideals about helping India, he realized that the termination of the Raj would leave Britain “a third-rate power

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David Gilmour has written a masterly, if slightly patrician and old-fashioned biography. Published in Britain nearly a decade ago, “Curzon” won a mantelpiece full of literary awards and earned an enviably long list of highly enthusiastic reviews that made its author’s reputation (recently enhanced by a no less remarkable prizewinning study of Rudyard Kipling, “The Long Recessional”).

Published now for the first time in the U.S. with a new foreword by the author, “Curzon” appears as timely as it is scholarly, well-researched and comprehensive. For South and Central Asia and the Middle East, the very areas that Curzon lorded over, worried about and attempted to control, are now countries critical to U.S. foreign policy. With the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, the issues and concerns that animated Curzon are now suddenly back at the top of the agenda. When, for example, one reads Curzon’s opinion, during a visit to Persia, that “our system may be good for us; but it is neither equally nor altogether good for them ... the normal Asiatic would sooner be misgoverned by Asiatics than well-governed by Europeans,” the words have a resonance to the reader that they could not have had when Gilmour first wrote them. Ultimately, however, Gilmour’s book should be read more as an elegant work of history than as some manual for contemporary American neo-Imperialism.

“Curzon” works on a number of levels. As a social history, it is gripping on the social mores of the time -- the fact, for example, that it was considered fine for Curzon, as a young and eligible bachelor of Kennedy-like sexual appetites, to have numerous discreet affairs with married women but quite impossible for him to sleep with unmarried single women of his own age: more or less the opposite of modern mores. As a political text, it’s a fascinating picture of a world controlled by a tiny group of politicians, most of whom were all intimately related to each other by blood, education or marriage. As a description of Empire, it is fair-minded, recognizing the ideals that animated a man like Curzon, while also aware of its many failings, prejudices and absurdities

Finally, “Curzon” stands as a remarkable portrait of a brilliant, complex and tragic genius. Gilmour demolishes the two-dimensional caricature of the British imperialist incarnate and reveals the man in full, while also placing him firmly in his social, historical and political contexts. Curzon, he demonstrates in this book, was a man whose many talents were undermined by the Achilles’ heel of his own arrogance. It is extremely unlikely that a better portrait of either a British viceroy or the climax of the Raj will be written in the foreseeable future.

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