It is a commonplace assumption among modern historians that minority rule has always had to rely on devices to preserve social distance. These have usually consisted of distinctions of dress, comportment and speech, and of restrictions on commensality and connubium. In Western societies they have operated within the cultural framework of class. Kenneth Ballhatchet takes the equally familiar notion that in colonial societies alien minority rule translated class distinctions into those of race. In India he sees the social aloofness of the ruling white minority as being reinforced during the 19th century by a growing taboo against sexual intercourse across the colour line. Half a century ago, Percival Spear, in his delightful book The Nabobs, traced the transformation from the 18th-century ménage of the European merchant, with his harem and upper-class Indian habits, to the 19th-century world of the civil lines, in which the monogamous British official and his marble-white family led a wholly segregated existence. Spear put the change down to the psychological needs of the conquering élite to distance itself from its subjects, to the arrival of a large number of European women, and to the ascendancy of Evangelical attitudes of contempt and superiority towards Indian culture. The great merit of Ballhatchet's book is to have brought the subject back under serious academic scrutiny, while the freedom now permissible because of changes in public taste has enabled him to pry into the seamier details.
LRB 17 April 1980 | PDF Download