Since everybody is talking about racism after the recent killing of an African-American by the police in the US, here is a true story of an unusual Briton who bucked the racist culture of his time: Lord Willingdon. Mumbai’s Willingdon Club, arguably the best sporting and social club in the country, is still named after him (the Delhi Gymkhana Club swimming pool carries his wife’s name). How did this happen?
Freeman Thomas came from an upper-class English family, went to the famous Eton College (actually a school) and captained its cricket team. He got admission to Trinity College, Cambridge University (where India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru also went), and played cricket for the university as well as for Sussex county. He then joined the army and reached the rank of Major. He married the daughter of a Baron and served as his ADC when he was the Governor of Victoria, Australia. On his return from Australia, he left the army and joined the Liberal Party, won two elections to the House of Commons and was appointed as a Junior Lord of the Treasury in the British Cabinet.
In 1910, he was elevated to the peerage as Baron Willingdon of Hatton, and in February 1913, he was appointed “Crown Governor of Bombay”. Bombay province then included present-day Maharashtra, much of Gujarat and Karnataka, and part of Sindh (now in Pakistan) as well. On the ship that took him to Bombay, he met and became friends with the Maharaja of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh (grandfather of Punjab Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh).
Bhupinder had became the Maharaja at the tender age of nine and remained on the throne till he died in 1938, still relatively young, not from any malady, but according to one account, “from boredom”. He had led a life of unbelievable opulence. His motorcade consisted of 20 Rolls Royce cars and he was the first Indian to own an aircraft, which he bought from the UK (he even built an airfield in Patiala for it). But he was extremely loyal to the British Empire (he was conferred a knighthood) and was the Indian representative at the Imperial War Council during World War I. He also represented the Sikhs at the Round Table Conference.
How much Lord Willingdon knew of the Maharaja’s colourful background is not known but both men clearly got on well. On embarking, he invited the Maharaja as his guest to the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, which faces the Gateway of India. Lord Willingdon was the club’s patron. They were both formally dressed, as per the club’s requirement, and the Maharaja may have adorned his turban with a jewel or two.
At the entrance to the club, the doorman discreetly took Lord Willingdon aside and said to him, “No natives allowed, sir.” An astonished Lord Willingdon responded, “Do you know who I am?” “I do sir,” was the reply, “but those are our rules.” Infuriated, Lord Willingdon ordered him to summon the club secretary, who duly came to the entrance. “I am the new Governor of Bombay, and the Maharaja of Patiala is my guest, and we would like to dine here,” he informed the very visibly embarrassed secretary, who could only say weakly, “Sir, I am afraid there is nothing I can do but the club rules do not allow any natives to enter.”
I am paraphrasing the incident, but that is essentially what happened. Lord Willingdon decided to do something about it. A large plot of land, near the iconic Haji Ali Dargah and alongside the present-day Racing Club, was acquired to build a club, with a swimming pool, tennis, badminton and squash courts, large enough additional space for several restaurants, bars, cards-room — and an 18-hole golf course! Britons and Indians could be members, the first club in the country to give membership to Indians. It became the premier club of Bombay, and remains so.
Incidentally, a few years later, the Maharaja of Patiala, a sports aficionado, perhaps smarting from the denial of entry to the snooty Yacht Club, founded the Cricket Club of India (CCI), not too far away, with a stadium that could hold international matches. I should add here that Lord Willingdon was the first important Britisher to formally invite Mahatma Gandhi to a meeting at Bombay’s Government House, on his arrival from South Africa. In 1919, Lord Willingdon became Governor of Madras and in 1924, he was elevated to the title of Viscount Willingdon. In 1926, he was appointed Governor-General of Canada and in 1932, he reached the apogee of his splendid career when he became Viceroy and Governor-General of India, the virtual ruler of the Indian subcontinent.
Shashi Tharoor has been denigrating the record of British rule in India. Yes, imperialism was certainly exploitative and racist, yet of all the main colonial powers — Spain, Portugal, France and Holland — the British were the least bad, if I can put it that way. They, at least, had men like Lord Willingdon, an aristocrat but a liberal at heart who had no animosity against Indians.
— The writer is a veteran journalist