The British Raj and Imperial Benevolence

The concept of ‘white supremacy’ was one of the cornerstones of the British Raj. There was a great debate in the British government on how this concept might be detrimentally affected by allowing Indian troops to fight ‘white’ troops in a European war. To maintain ‘white prestige’, Indian troops had not been used in combat in the Boer War. The decision to deploy Indian troops in France at the advent of World War I was made more out of necessity, rather than ideology. On August 5, 1914, the day after Britain declared war on Germany, the War Council recommended that India send the Lahore and Meerut infantry divisions to France and a cavalry brigade to Egypt. [1]

Having made the critical decision to employ Indian troops in Europe and now faced with the prospect of wounded Indian soldiers on British soil, it became clear that the fate of the Imperial Raj and its prestige could easily be undermined if care was not taken to properly manage the situation. Sir Walter Lawrence initially felt that offering medical care to the wounded Indian soldier’s equivalent to their British counterparts might encourage the Indians to start entertaining subversive ideas about racial equality, which might have undermined the prestige of British Rule in India. [2] Yet he also realized that the conditions and administration of the Indian hospitals of Brighton would inevitably become known in India and offering inferior care would be met in India with strong disapproval. As Lawrence put it, British India was ‘on trial’ within their walls. [3]

The racial and social hierarchy so carefully cultivated in the British Empire was firmly rooted in the belief that a separation between 'whites' and Indians had to be maintained. Otherwise an over familiarity between the rulers and the ruled would subvert the relations underpinning imperial domination. [4] This fear was one of the primary reasons why contact between Brighton hospital patients and the people of the town were strictly limited.

Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India between 1899 and 1905, expressed concern that ‘at home every man with a turban, a sufficient number of jewels and a black skin is mistaken for a miniature Akbar, and becomes the darling of drawing rooms, the honoured guest of municipalities and the hero of the newspapers’. [5]

Another major concern of the authorities was related to the concept of 'izzat' or 'honour' as it specifically related to the issue of 'white women'. The British had a innate fear that any liaisons between Indians and British women would bring dishonour not only upon their women but the prestige of the Raj itself. Such liasoins were strongly discouraged in British India and now at the Brighton hospitals as well.

E.B. Howell
Censor's Report, June 19, 1915
'The troops in hospital rather resent their close surveillance, but it is obviously better to keep a tight hand than allow them to conceive a wrong idea of the 'Izzat' of the English women. A sentiment which if not properly held in check would be most detrimental to the prestige and spirit of European rule in India.' [6]

The establishment of the Brighton hospitals had not been based on political necessity, but it now became critical that they become the flagships of imperial benevolence in order to promote the British Raj.

Sir Walter Lawrence to Lord Kitchener, early 1915
‘I never lose an opportunity of impressing on all who are working in these hospitals that great political issues are involved in making the stay of these Indians as agreeable as possible.’ [7]

Care of the Indian patients in Brighton through the instrument of imperial benevolence became a political necessity. The British government and the Government of India could not afford to alienate the moderate nationalists and the more traditional elements that were the bulwark of British power in India. [8] Emphasizing the paternalistic nature of relations in the Indian Army, one soldier likened the bedside manner of British medical officers to the ‘kindness of fathers to sons’. [9]

Subedar-Major [Sardar Bahadur Gugan] (6th Jats, 50) to a friend (India) [Hindi]
Brighton Hospital, early January 1915
‘We are in England. It is a very fine country. The inhabitants are very amiable and are very kind to us, so much so that our own people could not be as much so. The food, the clothes and the buildings are very fine. Everything is such as one would not see even in a dream. One should regard it as fairyland. The heart cannot be satiated with seeing the sights, for there is no other place like this in the world. It is as if one were in the next world. It cannot be described. A motor car comes to take us out. The King and Queen talked with us for a long time. I have never been so happy in my life as I am here.’ [10]

Dafadar Muhammad Husain, 36 th Jacob's Horse to Dafadar Ray Muhammad Khan, 37th Lancers
England (Urdu) April 13, 1915
'I am in the English hospital. The English doctors pay great attention to the Indian sick. We get very good food, beds, etc., and I cannot sufficiently praise the building: it is a very splendid building. (the Royal Pavilion). Old pensioned officers (retired British officers from the British Indian Army) and their wives come to the hospital and enquire after our health, and give fruits and sweetmeats to the sick, and we also get fruit and sweetmeats from the state. May God make our King victorious; it is proper for you to pray so, too. ... England is a very fine country. The King and Queen themselves came to visit the sick in hospital, and asked everyone if he had any sort of inconvenience. Every soldier blessed them and said that they were well served in every way and prayed for their Majesties' long lives.' [11]


1. David Omissi, “Europe Through Indian Eyes”, English Historical Review (Vol. 122, Numb 496, 2007) 373

2. Ibid. 378

3. Samuel Hyson & Alan Lester, "British India on trial: Brighton Military Hospitals and the politics of empire in World War I", Journal of Historical Geography 38 (2012) 25

4. Hamayun Ansari, The Infidel Within: Muslims in Britain Since 1800 (C. Hurst & Co. Publishers, 2004) 75

5. Ibid.

6. Samuel Hyson & Alan Lester, "British India on trial: Brighton Military Hospitals and the politics of empire in World War I", Journal of Historical Geography 38 (2012) 27-28

7. Kevin Bacon, "The Royal Pavilion as a Vision of Empire" (powerpoint presentation, The Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton & Hove, 2012)

8. Mark Harrison, Disease, Discipline and Dissent: The Indian Army in France and England, 1914-1915. in: Roger Cooter, Harrison Mark, Sturdy Steve, eds Medicine and Modern Warfare (Rodopi B.V., Amsterdam, 1999) 199

9. Ibid. 191-192

10. David Omissi, Indian Voices of the Great War, Soldiers’ Letters, 1914-1918 (St. Martin’s Press, Inc., 1999)

11. Ibid.