Our book today is the thrilling history Freedom at Midnight, Larry Collins’ and Dominique LaPierre’s 1975 account of the transfer India underwent in 1947 from being the jewel in the crown of the British Empire to taking its first steps toward functioning independence. As usual with a Collins & LaPierre production, the book is both impeccably well-researched and rippingly readable.
The British Raj had ruled India in one way or another for three centuries by the time Prime Minister Clement Attlee sent dashing Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten (a genuine Royal, great-grandson of India’s erstwhile empress, Queen Victoria) there as Viceroy with the specific mission of surrendering that much-storied possession. Like all Englishmen, both Attlee and Lord Mountbatten had grown up listening to stories of imperialism’s grand adventure and all its gaudy spectacle – and the spectacle didn’t get any grander than India, as Collins and LaPierre put it:
India with its Bengal Lancers and its silk-robed maharajas, its tiger hunts and its polo maidans, its puggree helmets, and its chota pegs of whiskey, its tea plantations and its District Commissioner’s Bungalows, its royal elephants caparisoned in gold and its starving sadhus, its mulligatawny soups and haughty memsahibs had incarnated the imperial dream.
Our authors have a walloping great story to tell, and they tell it with showman flair and, it must be said, a palpable affection – but still, they remain clear-eyed about the mechanisms by which that imperial dream was administered. They draw a picture of the rulers:
… the offspring of good Anglican country churchmen; talented second sons of the landed aristocracy destined to be deprived of a heritage by primogeniture; the sons of schoolmasters, classic professors and minor aristocrats who had managed to squander their family fortune. They mastered on the playing fields and in the classrooms of Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Winchester, Charterhouse, Haileybury, the disciplines that would fit them to rule an empire: excellence at games, a delight in “manly pursuits,” the ability to absorb the whack of a headmaster’s cane or declaim the Odes of Horace and the verses of Homer …
that’s just exactly as tilted toward romance as their portrait of the ruled is tilted toward realism:
Pious or atheist, Hindu or Moslem, rich or poor, decadent or saintly, the maharajas had been for almost two centuries the surest pillar of British rule in India. It was in their relations with the state that the British had applied to the greatest effect the “Divide and Rule” doctrine with which they were accused of governing India. In theory, the British could remove a ruler from his throne for misrule. In fact, a ruler could get away with almost any kind of outrageous behavior down to and including a few discreet murders without the British disturbing him – provided that his loyalty remained intact.
With one or two major hiccups, this system of imperial rule in India had managed to work, but the early years of the 20th century saw the rebirth and enormous strengthening of nationalist forces all throughout the subcontinent. And in response to those forces, Great Britain did with India what it never did with Ireland: it let go. After centuries of ruled childhood, India was propped on its feet and told to walk.
It stumbled, naturally, and Freedom at Midnight is the story of those stumbles. All the familiar faces – the Mountbattens, Winston Churchill, Nehru, and of course Gandhi – are here fleshed out with great anecdote after great anecdote, and all of it is grounded on a thick sheaf of endnotes. It’s hard to find similar journalistic endeavors in today’s literary landscape; they exist (Robert Fisk’s magnificent The Great War for Civilisation comes to mind), but they’re rare. Maybe they’ve always been rare, but either way, Collins and LaPierre managed to produce half a dozen such great books, from Is Paris Burning? to The Fifth Horseman to this present work, my personal favorite. All are worth your time, although almost all are – you guessed it! – out of print. It’s times like this I think the Brattle should pay me a commission …