It was British statesman Benjamin Disraeli who in 1872, between his two stints as Prime Minister and speaking at the Crystal Palace in London, admonished his Liberal opponents for attempting "to effect the disintegration of the Empire" by claiming "there never was a jewel in the crown of England that was so truly costly as the possession of India".

Disraeli's meaning was slightly altered by other people so that the phrase "jewel in the crown" – or sometimes "the brightest jewel in the crown" – came to refer to the Indian Empire not as an expensive possession but as a precious, glamorous and prestigious one.

For instance, British novelist Paul Scott, described by Gilmour as a perceptive witness of the last years of British India, used the title "The Jewel in the Crown" for the opening book of his "Raj Quartet", and in 1984 Granada Television adopted the same name for the entirety of its 14-episode filmed production of Scott's quartet.

Gilmour is an accomplished British historian and has already written on India in his biographies of Lord George Curzon, who was Viceroy and Governor-General of India from 1899 to 1905, and of Rudyard Kipling, born 1865, died 1936, the English writer chiefly remembered for his celebration of British imperialism, his tales and poems of British soldiers in India, and his stories for children. The biographies were published in 1994 and 2002 respectively, and Gilmour followed them in 2005 with "The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj", a study of the administrators of Victorian India.

The British arrived in India in the early 17th century after the founding of the East India Company in London, with a royal charter from Queen Elizabeth I dated 31 December 1600, granting the "Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies" a national monopoly of trade in the East. The goods of interest embraced spice, jewels and textiles, for instance.

Other nation-based East India Companies, founded by the Dutch, the Danes, the Portuguese and the French, were chartered in 1602, 1616, 1628 and 1664 respectively. But as the British East India Company expanded, its political control increased. The Company introduced raw materials such as tea, jute and rubber to the UK, which were important to Britain's development as an economic powerhouse. Trade in and via India was mainly in cotton, silk, indigo dye, saltpetre (the essential ingredient of gunpowder) and Chinese tea. The opium trade came later.

Men like Robert Clive, of the Company, combined military prowess with ruthless ambition and became fabulously wealthy. Clive was a soldier and the first British administrator of Bengal, and one of the creators of British power in India. In his first governorship from 1755 to 1760 he won the pivotal Battle of Plassey in 1757 and became master of Bengal. In his second governorship from 1764 to 1767 he reorganised the British colony.

With wealth came power, and British traders took control of huge swaths of India. Beyond Bengal the Company was at war for a century after Plassey, first with the French and then with Indian rulers as it vastly expanded the territory that was either directly or indirectly under its control.

On June 28, 1858, after growing dissent among Indians with various aspects of British rule led to the failed Indian Mutiny of 1857, the rule of the British East India Company was transferred to the Crown in the person of Queen Victoria. In 1876 she was proclaimed Empress of India. The British Raj, as this system of governance was known, lasted until 1947, when the colonialists could no longer hold off the demand for Indian independence and the country was partitioned into two sovereign dominion states: the Dominion of India (later the Republic of India) and the Dominion of Pakistan (later the Islamic Republic of Pakistan).

Short of an Eskimo meeting someone from an unknown tribe in the Amazon jungle (or what's not been burnt down yet), there may not be many bigger fundamental cultural clashes than those between the Indians and the British. Yet somehow, despite wide differences in religion, etiquette and customs, language, clothes and more, the British presence in India had occupied three centuries.

Author Gilmour explores this complex relationship between the rulers and their subjects. Seven decades after independence, the period still has an enduring fascination. A surprising number of famous Brits were born in India or went to school or spent parts of their youth there, including Vivien Leigh (born in Darjeeling), Merle Oberon (born in Bombay), Norman Wisdom (posted), Lindsay Anderson (born in Bangalore), Spike Milligan (born in Ahmednagar), Tom Stoppard (evacuated), Felicity Kendal (family move), Cliff Richard (born in Lucknow), George Orwell (born in Motihari) and Joanna Lumley (born in Srinagar).

Gilmour has spent 30 years researching the archives of British India and he makes it clear that his is a social history rather than political and military. His fossicking has yielded a rich harvest from diaries, memoirs, letters and official documents of the era, many previously unused. We find punkah wallahs, prostitutes, pagoda hunters, vice-regal palaces, battles, durbars, maharajahs' balls, tiger shoots and much more. He takes us through remote hill stations, bustling coastal ports, opulent palaces, regimented cantonments and dense jungles.

This book is about the people – the British men and women who made India their home – some permanently, some for a good part of their lives. Many of them died prematurely in this foreign land. The initial draw was money – from trade and speculation in the beginning, and from generous salaries for officers of the Indian Civil Service and other services later. Some were motivated by wanderlust, thirst for adventure or love for the exotic. Others needed to escape problems back home. There were eccentrics and tragedies.

Gilmour gives us a glimpse of their origins, their motives, how they prepared themselves for India, what was it like to travel to there and then in the country itself, what daily life was like and how they coped with the tedium of postings in isolated regions.

There were the ordinary British soldiers such as the 19 men who died of heat stroke in 1916 in a packed troop train crossing the Sindh desert. The aristocracy and the working class were more or less absent. In reaction to this relative homogeneity, there was an obsession with protocol and hierarchy. The wife of one stationmaster claimed dinner precedence over another because the latter's husband was on a branch line.

Early military adventurers were often dissolute ne'er-do-wells such as George Thomas, "the Rajah from Tipperary", a poor Irish mercenary who in the 1760s was press-ganged into the British Navy and jumped ship in Madras. He eventually carved out his own state in the badlands west of Delhi, built himself a palace, minted his own coins and collected a harem, but in the process forgot how to speak English. When asked at the end of his career to dictate his autobiography, he said he would be happy to do so as long as he could speak in Persian as "from constant use it was become more familiar than his native tongue".

In contrast, the military recruits of the early 20th-century Raj were clubbable public school types such as Hilary Hook, who "joined the military so I could play polo, go pig-sticking, shooting and hunting, and have a jolly time with a lot of jolly fellows".

Gilmour has many anecdotes and nice vignettes, in an easy-going readable style.

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