Tributes paid to Dr David Washbrook 1948-2021

Professors Anil Seal, Joya Chatterji and Boyd Hilton pay tribute to their fellow historian, Dr David Washbrook, who died on 24 January 2021.

David Washbrook came up in 1966 to read History at Trinity. He grew up in a less-privileged part of South London, but his outstanding ability took him to a school, and then a college, where he shone. He had some connections with India: his mother, who brought him up as her only child after his father’s premature death, was born there, and indeed his father served there during the War.

Dr David Washbrook. Photo: The Washbrook family

But it was at Trinity that this talented scholar ‘found’ India as his subject for life. Jack Gallagher, who had migrated from Trinity to a temporary exile at Oxford, and Anil Seal, were then opening up a new approach, and bringing new sources, to the study of modern Indian history. Together they influenced a generation of brilliant students, encouraging them to investigate parts of the subcontinent in the detail they merited. David’s ‘region’ of choice was the Madras Presidency, which – while dotted with princely states – sprawled across much of the southern peninsula. Madras remained, from first to last, his intellectual focus, although he ranged so far and wide in his ideas that, later he was recognised as the global historian he had become.

From his earliest days as an undergraduate, graduate and then Fellow, it was clear to all those who ‘taught him’, that David was very special, whether as a scholar and/or as a human being.

In a good-humoured and understated way, he was always a force for good. He inspired his peers, the many students he later taught and also countless colleagues, young and old, to whom he gave unstintingly of his time and friendship.

Among a host of stellar scholars, many from Trinity, who in their different ways have transformed the study of modern India, David was – Oxbridge legend notwithstanding – perhaps the greatest of them all (although he would never have made such a claim for himself.) Yet he had no airs. Kind, warm, gentle, deep, self-effacing, but mordant when needed, and often funny, he was a cynosure as a colleague and friend.

David Washbrooks’s monograph, The Emergence of Provincial Politics: The Madras Presidency 1870-1920, was a sophisticated, hard-hitting analysis of the high politics of Madras. It threw particular light on the dominance of Tamil Brahmins and the challenge to them by the ‘non-Brahmin’ movement, recurring themes which would become a force that shaped India before and after independence and its influential diaspora the world over.

But David constantly crossed frontiers in ways that marked him out as a distinctive scholar. Working in collaboration with Christopher Baker (a contemporary at Queens’, but associated with Trinity), they co-authored a pioneering work (South India: Political Institutions and Political Change 1880-1940), which remains relevant to this day. He then executed a sharp pivot back in time, to the eighteenth century, then a much-misunderstood period in India’s history.

It was at this time and in this work that David also found his metier as an essayist. Asked why he did not develop his game-changing ideas into books, he’d say, ‘well, I felt that once I had cracked the problem that had been bothering me, I didn’t have the heart to bang on and on about it.’ (Others often melded these ideas into books, some of them great books.)

David’s stature as a stylist also grew – there was ever more silver (and touches of gold too) flowing from his nib. We have testimony of how enduring his essays remained from Joya Chatterji, who returned to Trinity at much the same time as David, and who became a fast friend and collaborating scholar.

During the 15 years Joya edited Modern Asian Studies, among the top journals in the field, David remained ‘most-cited author’ year after year, with his articles generating great impact decades after they were written. No doubt they will hold their place for a long time to come.

In his odyssey through academia, from Junior Research Fellow at Trinity to Warwick and Oxford, with a break at Harvard, before returning as a Senior Research Fellow to Trinity, which he always regarded as home, David’s interests began noticeably to change, focussing more on issues close to the ground – to economic inequality and caste conflict in the countryside. He considered, long before it became fashionable so to do, the impact of the environment on society.

Paradoxically (for some), he also grew more interested in the wider processes of global modernity and India’s place in it. He asked why British law produced unfree labour in rural India when it was intended to have the opposite effect, teasing out the complex interplay between ‘Law, State and Society’, one of his many ground-breaking articles. He helped to provide answers to the biggest question of them all, Why Europe grew Rich and Asia grew Poor (Parthasarathi – another of his students from his days at Harvard). David’s questing intellect and breadth of vision led him to consider such questions on a global scale, while never forgetting the ‘untouchable’ pariah in rural Tamil Nadu.

A gentle man, David could be pugilistic in intellectual debate. As a research student, he delivered a (surprising but perhaps deserved) ‘knock-out’ punch to the work of another Cambridge student’s first book (that review is still read, even taught.) Every university in the world with a good History department and India on its curriculum teaches the hugely significant debate in which David engaged (with Rosalind O’Hanlon, with whom he worked closely) with the ‘Subaltern Studies’ collective. Their arguments about what History does, can do, and how it ought to be done, are a must-read; and Rosalind will surely continue to follow up these issues vital to the subject.

This balance of intellectual robustness and Buddha-like serenity epitomised David’s contributions as a colleague, examiner and friend. Compassionate to a fault, humorous and wise, he was razor-sharp when it came to critique. Often his demeanour was so amicable and his comments so moderate in tone that seminar presenters or examinees would not realise for hours, days and sometimes much longer, that their central arguments had been skewered.

But when he gave encouragement and praise, it was deserved and did good.

David’s contribution to universities where he taught, but particularly to Cambridge and its Centre of South Asian Studies, was great. Generations of students, awestruck by his virtuosity, had easy access to this most big-hearted of scholars. He attended every seminar at the Centre, always enriching the discussion with his ‘humdinger’ questions, supporting its Director, first Chris Bayly and then Joya, in teaching, examining and course revision, so important for the students. He did this selflessly to support the subject, which he loved, and with which his fascination never dimmed.

As a Senior Research Fellow of Trinity he was not contractually obliged to perform any duties other than pursue his own research, but in fact he gave enormous service to College and University. Uncomplainingly he took on as much undergraduate and postgraduate teaching as the nature of his Fellowship allowed him to, he participated fully in the intellectual life of the Centre for South Asian Studies. In College he served on Council and various committees, always with wisdom pithily expressed. A devoted husband, father, and grandfather, he spent weekends at the family home in Oxford, but between times he enlivened High Table lunch and dinner both by virtue of his voluminous knowledge of world affairs and with his abundance of anecdotes, always delivered in a deadpan manner and mostly designed to illustrate the absurdity (and worse) of academics.

For members who never met him, it is possible to catch something of his comic voice in his editorial introductions to recent Annual Records. Here he is in 2016 musing on the issue of whether symbolically Trinity presented as friendly a face to women as it might.

As visitors to Hall last Michaelmas will have noticed, the celebrated Holbein portrait of Henry VIII hanging over the dais was missing, moved to the Fitzwilliam Museum for an exhibition. It was replaced pro tem. by the portrait of Elizabeth I taken from the Master’s Lodge. The shift gave rise to a debate about whether we wished the usual picture most prominently displayed in our most public space to project an image of the College quite so masculine, not to say masculist. By repute, Henry persuaded the painter to ‘sex up’ the original portrait, turning him full-face (and other things) on to the viewer to convey an impression of testosterone-driven power. Would it not be more fitting in our present age to keep ‘Gloriana’ on site and consign Henry back to the darker recesses of the Master’s Lodge? The question raised great passions among the Fellowship.

In the end, it was decided that, whatever the gender issue, Elizabeth could not stay in place of our founding patron for the most important of reasons: she had never given the College a brass farthing. If a female Tudor were to replace Henry, it would have to be his other daughter Mary Tudor, a small portrait of whom also hangs in the Hall. Her generosity to Trinity was considerable. However, Mary Tudor is better known as ‘Bloody Mary’ who lit the fires under English Protestantism in a rather literal way… Her elevation to the role of College icon would certainly have given a novel twist to Trinity’s celebrations of Bonfire Night.

Two years later David mused on the all-too-brief rise and fall of Antony Gormley’s modernist sculpture ‘Free Object’ on the College Backs.

It has left the College pondering other and new art works with which to fill its all-too vacant spaces – with the Fellows’ Garden beyond Queen’s Road a very possible location. However, and contrary to a certain amount of College opinion, I should add that the permanently-empty benches in the centre of New Court, around a tree that is noted for providing a commodious perch for very large pigeons, are intended not as a work of art but for public use.

He did not pretend to enjoy the direction in which the nation and its universities have been heading in recent times. Indeed, he was a paid-up member of the Grumpy Old Men, a group that met over pints in the Castle Inn once a term with the express aim of rendering themselves thoroughly depressed. Needless to say, the process did not prevent the generation of much raucous laughter. He will be very fondly remembered.

David will be sorely missed by Angela, his childhood love and wife for half a century, by his children and grandchildren whom he adored and who adored him back.

David Washbrook will also be missed in Cambridge and around the world, wherever the understanding of India matters. But his many students, colleagues, friends and family will be consoled that David’s life, suddenly cut short, was a life well spent, with a benign, yet stimulating, impact in every way that really matters.

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