One of the best things about working on alcohol is that nearly everyone can relate to your research. Despite the change over time to many of our drinking habits, the pleasures found in drinking (as well as some of the anxieties that surround it) remain much the same as ever, and this can open up some great discussions with people from both inside and outside of the academy. Everyone will have an opinion on when, where, what and how much is acceptable to drink – as the Sun ‘newspaper’ illustrated just last week, such views can be strongly and bitterly held, especially since drinking relates so closely to how we perceive ourselves and are in turn perceived by others, individually, socially, and internationally. The same was true of Colonial British India, and the voices I am encountering throughout my research are those of different ranks, classes, genders, nationalities, professions and so on, with the response to drinking offering a cross-section of opinion from British and colonial society.
One of the loudest voices in this chorus is that of the church. Alcohol consumption, and alcohol abuse, has always possessed a moral dimension as histories of the Temperance Movement and of early pre-medicalised responses to alcoholism have shown, and representatives of the church had a lot to say on the matter of vice among British soldiers in India. A series of testimonies from spiritual leaders representing various faiths was collected in 1910 and put before Lord Kitchener, then Commander in Chief for India. Catholic and Protestant ministers alike expressed their fears for the souls and bodies of the British soldiers of India, stating that drinking would inevitably lead them to all manner of other ‘deplorable vice’, especially gambling and fornication with bazaar prostitutes. Kitchener’s response was a rather dry memorandum issued to all troops exhorting them to keep themselves fit and healthy in both body and mind, stating it was no less a part of their duty to Britain than their military service, and if they were to drink alcohol then to make sure not to touch any native brews.
Kitchener’s somewhat laissez-faire attitude did little to appease the churchmen. In 1923, the Reverend C. Phillips Cape, a Wesleyan minister formerly of Lucknow, felt so strongly about the subject that he voiced his concerns via a letter to the Liverpool Daily Post & Mercury. In his letter, Cape railed against the high levels of alcoholism in the military that he claimed to have witnessed during his time in India, stating that it prompted soldiers to contract venereal diseases or assault defenceless Indians, and that such actions hampered his own missionary work. Moreover, Cape cited a memo authored by Lord Rawlinson at Simla that criticised the fashion for ‘short drinks’ and cocktails since the war, seeing it as a source of much harm both to the individual and to British prestige.
The Military Department quite understandably closed ranks and embarked on a brisk PR mission to combat these accusations. Their official response was a rebuttal that showed drunkenness in clear decline. A report compiled by the redoubtable sounding Lieutenant Colonel A. W. Chitty of the India Office in Whitehall dismissed Cape’s allegations out of hand, producing figures collected from regiments serving in India that showed a marked decrease in courts martial for drunkenness in the years since the war. Chitty’s report stated how Quartermasters had deliberately made ‘wet canteens’ as uninviting as possible in an effort to encourage men to attend the Temperance clubs instead.
Cape himself was written off in private correspondence as ‘quite clearly a fanatic’, however, publicly he was said to have been mistaken and only in possession of a small part of the picture. Whatever incidents he may have witnessed were not, the India Office wrote reassuringly, representative of general British behaviour. Indeed, Sir Alexander Cobbe, VC, Military Secretary to the India Office, pooh-poohed the Reverend’s claims in a wearied and sardonic memo, noting (not without a tinge of lament) that: ‘I don’t think the British soldier in India can be accused of heavy drinking. Many more buns are eaten than pints of beer drunk nowadays in regiments’.
I wonder whether Cape lived long enough to see Indian Independence in 1947, when his hope for total prohibition of intoxicating substances was written into the Indian constitution. Whilst unlikely to have raised a glass at the news, I imagine that it would at least have given him plenty to write about.
 See Roy Porter, “Drinking Man’s Disease: the ‘Pre-History’ of Alcoholism in Georgian Britain,” British Journal of Addiction 80 (1985), pp. 385-96; Mariana Valverde, Diseases of the Will: Alcohol and the Dilemmas of Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Jonathan Herring, Ciaran Regan, Darin Weinberg, Phil Withington (eds.), Intoxication & Society: Problematic Pleasures of Drugs and Alcohol (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).