India could dominate the imperial imagination even of people who did not go there. And the numbers of people who did go were remarkably few. In the second half of the nineteenth century millions of Britons left their islands to begin new lives overseas. More than a million went to Australia and New Zealand; another million went to Canada and southern Africa; and over 3 million, the majority of them Irish, emigrated to the United States.

Yet at the end of that century the entire British population of India – that is, the territories later consisting of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma (now Myanmar) – numbered no more than 155,000, far fewer than the inhabitants of Newcastle at that time and about a fifth of the size of the Glaswegian populace. Many of them, moreover, had not chosen to go there, including, most obviously, children born on the Subcontinent as well as thousands of soldiers who had enlisted in York and Dublin and elsewhere without knowing that their regiments would later be sent out to India.

It was as if the British, at almost every level of society, were proud to have India as their jewel but did not want to spend much time admiring the object: it was just nice to know it was in the bank and to be able to boast about it.

The monarchy was the chief exception to this. Although Queen Victoria, Empress of India, never went east of Berlin, she cared passionately about her Indian subjects, especially the two classes she was acquainted with, visiting maharajas and her own servants.

Her grandson toured India as George V, and he, his father and his eldest son also went there as princes of Wales. The higher aristocracy was by contrast indifferent. Apart from the Duke of Buckingham, who was governor of Madras in the 1870s, no peer who had inherited a dukedom or a marquessate stooped to govern either of the Indian provinces he could aspire to (Bombay and Madras), even though such places were surely of a size and importance worthy of patrician proconsular attention. (In 1900 the population of the presidency of Bombay was 25.4 million and that of Madras 38.6 million, while that of Great Britain was 38 million.)

Politicians too were reluctant to concern themselves with India: debates in the Victorian House of Commons often emptied the Chamber and led to a stampede towards the tea room. Even those hoping one day to govern India from Westminster and Whitehall were unwilling to visit it, although Curzon went there twice as a young man because he hoped to be viceroy on his way to becoming foreign secretary and prime minister. No future prime minister before Clement Attlee travelled to the Indian Empire at any stage of his political career, although the future Duke of Wellington went there as a colonel of infantry in 1796, and Winston Churchill followed, a hundred years later, as a subaltern of hussars.

Attlee himself was reluctant to go, nervous that his work on the Simon Commission to India (1928–9) might debar him from office if Ramsay MacDonald came to power in 1929 (as it temporarily did). He was soon absorbed by the Subcontinent and became the most knowledgeable of all prime ministers on the subject.

Churchill went to India forty-four years before he became prime minister, but apparently he was even then aspiring to the post. One day in the late 1890s the master of the Ootacamund Hunt was bringing home his hounds when he was accosted by an unknown cavalry officer, smoking a cigar on horseback, who told him he proposed to leave the army, enter Parliament and eventually become prime minister. It was Lieutenant Churchill of the 4th Hussars.

Neville Chamberlain also visited India before he became an MP. He was a businessman in Birmingham, manufacturing metal ship berths, at the time of his travels in 1904–5.

Even men whose duty it was to administer India from London were disinclined to acquaint themselves with the territories associated with their work. Arthur Godley, a wily and phlegmatic bureaucrat, spent twenty-six years running the India Office in Whitehall without ever visiting, or showing any inclination to visit, the place to which he had dedicated his career. This attitude was imitated by a number of his officials.

EC Winchester joined the India Office as a junior clerk in 1878 and retired from it forty-two years later as a staff clerk. Outside office hours, India seems to have played no part in his life. He occupied his spare time, no doubt agreeably, playing the organ and composing church music, including nine chants for the Te Deum Laudamus.

Another curious example was John Maynard Keynes, a young man interested in a vast range of subjects that did not happen to include India. After passing the civil service exams in 1906, he joined the India Office because it was prestigious, because it had short working hours and because his preferred ministry, the Foreign Office, would have sent him abroad, far away from his friends in Cambridge. Twenty months later he resigned to become a university lecturer and later a fellow of King’s, his beloved Cambridge college. In the meantime he had acquired sufficient interest in the Subcontinent to make it the subject of his first book, Indian Currency and Finance.

The India Office was a government department presided over by a secretary of state. Its precursor was East India House in Leadenhall Street in the City, which was staffed by officials of the East India Company until 1858 when the Government of India Act transferred the administration of India from the Company to the Crown.

The Regulating Act of 1773 and William Pitt’s India Act of 1784 had already diluted the powers of the East India Company, giving ultimate control of its activities to a cabinet minister known as the president of the Board of Control.

East India House had certain similarities to its successor, among them the ease with which its employees were able to separate their jobs from their interests and pursue parallel careers, often literary ones, without the distraction of visiting India or even thinking about it outside the office.

Charles Lamb, essayist and critic, entered the accountant’s office as a clerk in 1792 and spent his entire working life in Leadenhall Street. So did Thomas Love Peacock, the poet and novelist, who retired in 1856 as chief examiner of correspondence after thirty-seven years at East India House. His successor in the examiner’s office was John Stuart Mill, who also spent over thirty years in the building, although his particular outside interest was philosophy.

Men who allotted their free time to writing about almost everything other than India might understandably be reluctant to visit the place. But the same excuse cannot be made for James Mill, the philosopher’s father, an impatient and bad-tempered figure unable to appreciate the humour of his easy-going colleague Peacock. Yet another head of the examiner’s office, Mill had written his very long History of British India before establishing himself at East India House.

Although he had never been to India and knew no Indian languages, he had considered himself equipped to write a history demonstrating the barbarism of the Subcontinent, its peoples, cultures, customs and religions. Many British officials in India regarded the work as offensive and ignorant, yet it enjoyed extraordinary success in Britain and became an important text at Haileybury, the college in Hertfordshire where civil servants of the East India Company were trained. The historian Macaulay, who believed the answer to India’s problems would be the anglicisation of its leading classes, regarded Mill’s efforts as ‘the greatest historical work which has appeared in our language since that of Gibbon’. Yet The Decline and Fall would surely not have been quite so great if its author had never been to Rome.

Another remarkable absentee from India was Max Mueller (1823–1900), a German scholar and naturalised Briton who became a fellow of All Souls and a professor of philosophy at Oxford. The foremost Sanskrit scholar of his age, he translated Vedic scriptures and wrote a much-lauded book called India: What Can It Teach Us? Yet apparently he did not think that an actual visit to India would teach him anything.

Excerpted with permission from The British In India: Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience, David Gilmour, Allen Lane.