Some years ago , in the office at lunchtime , we were talking about imperialism and I opined that of all the colonial powers , the British were relatively benign . Joe Mc___, a colleague , who was listening to the conversation , was incensed at my statement and upbraided me for saying so. I was surprised at his vehemence until I realized that he was an Irish American and that the Irish suffered great privations at the hands of the British. Be that as it may , the British did not exhibit nearly the same callousness as the Spanish in South America, the Dutch in Indonesia or the Belgians in the Congo.
I was reminded about this when I read about Raffles and the Golden Opportunity , a new biography of Stamford Raffles by Victoria Glendenning. Raffles , the founder of Singapore , was an extraordinary man by any standard, an adventurer , a historian ,a writer, a botanist and a remarkably forward thinking man . After joining the East India company in 1795 at the age of 14 , Raffles worked his way up and played a prominent part in the annexation of Java . Appointed Lieutenant-Governor , he introduced partial self-government , stopped the slave trade, became an early opponent of the Opium trade by placing strict limits upon its importation , led an expedition to rediscover and restore Borobudur and other ancient monuments, and replaced the Dutch forced agriculture system with a land tenure system of land management. Later , he again clashed with the Dutch and founded the city-state of Singapore. As the de facto Resident of Singapore , he freed slaves , banned cockfighting , helped set up a Malay language college ,supported vaccination drives and abolished cruel punishments .Both Raffles and his first wife Olivia drove themselves relentlessly and they paid a heavy price . Olivia died in 1814 within nine years of their marriage and four of Raffles five children died in infancy. Raffles himself suffered from poor health and passed away at the age of 45. His presence is till felt in Singapore thanks to the dozens of landmarks and institutions named after him . Even the Business Class on Singapore Airlines is known as Raffles Class !
Less famous but no less beloved was Jim Corbett ( 1875-1957), who joined the Bengal-Nagpur Railway at the age of 19 and later became a contractor . He held the post of Colonel in the British Army and was often called upon by the government to shoot the man-eating tigers and leopards who preyed upon defenseless villagers . During his career , Corbett bagged 33 man-eaters ( 19 tigers and 14 leopards)which collectively had been responsible for the deaths of over 1,200 men , women and children . In later life , Corbett detailed his experiences in several best sellers , including Maneaters of the Kumaon and the The Man- Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag . Contrary to what one might expect , Corbett had a deep respect for wildlife and ony animals that were a menace to humans. He was also a highly principled man , a fact that shines through in his books .
One incident is sufficient to give the measure of the man : When he was working as a contractor at Mokameh Ghat , the payrolls were for some reason held up in the head office . Out of loyalty to Jim Corbett , their overseer , the laborers worked for several months though they had not been paid but , finally , they could not take it any more . A deputation of laborers went to Corbett’s bungalow to tell him that their wives and children were on the verge of starvation and they needed to be paid at once . When they reached Corbett’s quarters , his servant told them the sahib was at dinner and asked them to wait until he was done . Silently , they squatted down in a corner of the ante room . A few minutes later , a bearer emerged from the kitchen on the way to the dining room , bearing Corbett’s dinner on a tray . The headman stopped him and checked the dishes under the covers; there were only a couple of thin chappatis and a bowl of watery daal. ” Is this all that sahib has for dinner?” he asked the bearer. “Yes” was the reply. There was a moment of silence as the headman digested the information and realized that Corbett was fully sharing their privations and not in any better shape than they were. Then he said ” Tell sahib that, no matter what happens , we will continue to work .” With that the laborers trooped out . Luckily for all concerned , the train carrying the payroll arrived at Mokameh Ghat the next day and the laborers received their long overdue wages.
No wonder that Jim Corbett is still revered in these parts of India fifty years after his death . It is altogether fitting that India’s first national wildlife park was named after him.
There were several others like Raffles and Corbett who transcended their origins and worked for the good of the people in the colonies. There was one Englishman , who worked as the Dewan ( chief minister ) for the ruler of Saurashtra . He worked so tirelessly and was so evenhanded in his administration of justice that when it came time for him to retire and return to England , a deputation of the common people begged him to stay on as their ruler. This of course he could not do ; I only wish I remembered his name.
There were many others like him who fell in love with the colonies they were sent to administer. Many of them paid the ultimate price succumbing to tropical diseases or harsh conditions and overwork and their remains lie mouldering in forgotten graves . Still others retired to the mother country at the end of their careers only to discover that they had left their hearts behind in the colonies.
This is not to pretend that all the British colonizers were enlightened humans who worked for the good of their colonial subjects . The vast majority of them were adventurers whose one thought was to line their pockets and go back home to live like nabobs . I think , however , that enough of them were good people imbued with that curiously British sense of fair play that makes me feel that , all in all , the British were the ” good ” colonizers .
If today’s Indian politicians had one-half , even one tenth , of the love these foreigners had for their adopted country , if they had even one hundredth the probity of a Jim Corbett modern India would be a much , much better place .