Group biography is most satisfying when it combines atmosphere with an overarching mission. This is especially so with colonial history.
In 2018, Deborah Baker recounted the efforts of John Auden and Michael Spender—the older, more obscure brothers of Wystan and Stephen—to scale Mount Everest in The Last Englishmen: Love, War and the End of Empire. (Baker’s excellent book includes veteran climber Bill Wager’s timeless advice for any collective enterprise: Always recruit someone “so universally disliked that the others, with a common object for their spleen, would be drawn together in close companionship.” He referred, naturally, to the “impossibly pompous” Spender.)
More recently, Tim Harper followed Asia’s national-liberation movements through the activities of their leading lights—chiefly the Bengali M. N. Roy, Ho Chi Minh, and the Indonesian Communist Tan Malaka—in 2020’s Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire. Harper quotes British prime minister A. J. Balfour’s quintessential justification for the Raj: “If the east was accustomed to untold centuries of absolute government, ‘is it not a good thing … that this absolute Government should be exercised by us?’”
To the renegade heroes of Ramachandra Guha’s Rebels Against the Raj: Western Fighters for India’s Freedom, the evils of absolutism were exceeded only by their foreign exercise.
The author of an exemplary two-volume biography of Gandhi and memorable studies of cricket, the environment, and modern India, Guha is among the world’s finest living historians. Rebels Against the Raj—the seed for which was planted more than 20 years ago as “a sequel” to Guha’s life of the Anglo-Indian anthropologist Verrier Elwin, Savaging the Civilized (1999)—celebrates seven Westerners who “chose to struggle for the freedom of a country other than their own,” beginning with the colorful Theosophist and future Indian National Congress president Annie Besant’s landing in Tamil Nadu in 1893.
Drawn from an unedifying marriage in Cheltenham—where the Raj’s professional class went to drink, prose, and retire—to nonconformism, from nonconformism to atheism, from atheism to Theosophy, and thence to India, Besant was an inveterate, but not unquestioning, left-wing joiner. Her friend and onetime fellow Fabian George Bernard Shaw observed, “[she] always came into a movement with a bound, and was preaching the new faith before the astonished spectators had the least suspicion that the old one was shaken.” (Besant’s first impression of Theosophy was scornful: “a dreamy, emotional, scholarly interest in the religio-philosophic fancies of the past.”)
Within two years of arrival in India, Besant was lecturing on “The Means of India’s Regeneration” through social and educational reforms. Ironically, the latter would not have been out of place at Thomas Arnold’s Rugby School in their conservative emphasis on classical and religious—in Besant’s case, Sanskrit and Hindu—learning.
As her later disagreements with Gandhi and the Pune “firebrand” Bal Gangadhar Tilak illustrate, Besant believed sincerely in incremental progress: “I have always been ready to break a bad law & suffer the penalty; I have never been ready to break all laws (without moral sanction), leaving my conscience to be ruled by a committee. The first is the action of a reformer; the second of an anarchist.” (Mention must be made of “God Save Our Ind,” the anthem Besant set to “God Save the King” in 1915; its lyrics are only marginally less insipid and ill-advised than Bob Dole’s 1996 Sam and Dave–inspired campaign theme song, “I’m a Dole Man.”)
Guha’s other four English subjects dabbled, by Besant’s definition, in various degrees of anarchy. The “inflammatory” pro-Congress articles of Benjamin Guy “B. G.” Horniman, the founding editor of the Bombay Chronicle, resulted in his deportation in 1919. (He returned to India in the face of ongoing government resistance in 1926.)
A modestly talented concert pianist by training, Madeleine Slade emigrated from London for an ascetic, lifelong commitment to Gandhi in 1924. As his adopted daughter, she would be known as “Mira Behn.”
Philip Spratt, my favorite of Guha’s “rebels,” “espouse[d] social revolution” in the mid-1920s and was detained in the Meerut Conspiracy Case in 1929. Spratt’s relentlessly inquiring mind and wide reading led to an eventual, painful rejection of Communism.
Catherine Mary Heilemann (“Sarala” from around 1936 onward) defied the arbitrary restrictions of the Defense of India Rules in 1944 and was duly jailed.
The Americans Samuel Evans Stokes and Ralph Richard “Dick” Keithahn were enticed by India’s privations. At age 20, Stokes was “fascinated” by the stories of one Dr. Carleton’s Himalayan leper colony, and over his parents’ not surprisingly “strong objections” left for India in 1904. Keithahn, Guha writes, preferred missionary work “in a poorer part of the world” to joining the priesthood at home. He had also considered China.
The appeal of Guha’s protagonists lies in private details as much as in their public deeds. Each day at lunch, Horniman “would take with him two brown paper bags; one with breadcrumbs for birds, the other with small change for the urchins at street corners.” Mira approved of the photographs from the set of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982), but “complained bitterly that Geraldine James, who portrayed her, was so much more beautiful than herself.” Missing his wife, Mildred, “terribly” after their separation, Keithahn would periodically “take out one of her saris and fold and re-fold it.” The cost of “identification with his new homeland” was “enormous.”
After Gandhi’s assassination, in 1948, the five who remained were bound for disappointment. Keithahn was repelled by the sectional politicking in India’s first general elections in 1951–52. Mira railed at misguided development policies, corruption, and jingoism. She wondered, “Why then have we so completely cast away Bapu’s ideals in the consolidation of that Freedom? Perhaps the answer is that those who have capacity to rule have not that faith, and those who have that faith have not capacity to rule. What a strange thing it is!”
Spratt’s perspective was typically more skeptical: “One likes to criticize any firmly established institution—always subject to the proviso that one’s critical suggestions are not carried out. That is the unspoken proviso attached to the fulminations of any British revolutionary.”
Max Carter is the head of the Impressionist and Modern Art department at Christie’s in New York