Kevin Forkan reviews a new book on the British Empire in India, countering those Brexit lovers who have forgotten the horrors of empire.
Jon Wilson, India Conquered: Britain’s Raj and the Chaos of Empire, by (Simon & Schuster, 2016)
The British Empire is back, resurrected by Brexit. British government ministers and the Foreign Office are talking openly of ‘Empire 2.0’ – increased trading and cultural connections with former colonies and imperial possessions as a replacement for European markets and continental influence. Polls in 2014 and 2016 found that 43% of Britons consider the empire a ‘good thing’, and 59% consider that countries colonised by Britain are better off for the experience with only 15% considering them worse off. Politicians and polls both tend to present dichotomous choices leading to simplistic answers, but what they nevertheless show is how serious academic study of the British Empire, and particularly the British Empire in India, has failed to penetrate mainstream discourse.
In recent years historians have offered their readers a far more critical view of the role of British colonists and administrators in the red swathes denoting the empire on nineteenth century maps. Academic historians like Partha Chatterjee and John Darwin have vied with respected commentators and journalists such as Jeremy Paxman and Pankaj Mishra in parsing the effect of empire on both rulers and ruled, on those whose lands were colonised and those in the colonising nation who cheered the advance of the red lines on the map.
Research has moved on from the 2000s, but the Ferguson thesis has entered the mainstream, or rather its existence amplified what many people suspected already, that colonialism, specifically British colonialism, equated to the spread of civilisation amongst the ‘uncivilised’, that the legacy of imperialism/colonialism in terms of physical and administrative infrastructure is positive and that ‘things have gone to hell’ in the former colonies following the British departure, and overall that the British Empire was a ‘good thing’.
Jon Wilson’s India Conquered is no Empire. It pulls no punches in assigning blame for most of the catastrophes that punctuated Indian history from the late 1600s to 1947. The subtitle is important, ‘Britain’s Raj and the Chaos of Empire’. Wilson portrays the English/British during their first century of intrusion into the sub-continent as both the exploiters and creators of chaotic situations. The East India Company’s distaste for negotiation and demands to be treated differently to other subjects perplexed provincial Mughal governors, and their readiness to resort to violence, ‘action in the heat of the moment’, allowed them to create fortified settlements at Calcutta, Bombay, Madras and a host of smaller sites. These eventually formed a Solzhenitsyn-esque archipelago of fortified posts scattered throughout the subcontinent, existing on their own terms, connected to each other but not to the societies in which they were situated. Wilson delves deep into the motives of East India Company conquest, and concludes that the idea of gaining territory in India came not from London, but ‘started among officers in Bengal itself, frustrated about their fractious relationship with Mughal authorities’.
For this reviewer, the early chapters contain the real worth of Wilson’s book, as he tours the ‘forgotten wars’ that shaped the contours of the British archipelago in India. He assigns no ideology of colonisation or imperialism to the seventeenth and eighteenth century British operatives in India. The panoply of colonisation theories that had been developed by English/British intellectuals, politicians, merchants and settlers to explain and celebrate their activities in Ireland, North America and Australia were not brought into play; India was not Terra Nullus and would never become a destination of mass white settlement. Instead, East India Company officials fixated on their honour and authority, responding to slights and dishonours perpetrated by Mughal governors or south Indian nawabs with what looks like irrational paranoia and violence, ‘the small minded psychology of the embattled bully’.
The Persian invasion and decline of the Mughal Empire from the 1740s created chaotic conditions that the East India Company exploited to the full. As the Mughal polity fragmented, Company officers and soldiers became mercenaries, allying with former Mughal vassals such as the Maratha state, Arcot and Hyderabad: their rewards frequently came in the form of land grants or taxation rights. The increasing chaos in India, to which the Company contributed fully, led to their further fortification of Calcutta; this increased pressure on the ruler of Bengal, Nawab Siraj, to assert himself in his own dominion. Thus followed the taking of Calcutta and the infamous Black Hole. Wilson pays little attention to the Black Hole of Calcutta as a foundation myth of British India, but in the immediate term the incident furthers his thesis that the empire was founded in a climate of anger and paranoia: ‘the mood was for the redemption of lost honour through violent revenge’. To correct J.R Seeley, empire was not founded ‘in a fit of absence of mind’, but rather in a fit of rage.
Victory at the subsequent battle of Plassey brought riches to the East India Company from the taxation rights of Bengal. The rigid enforcement of revenue-collection above all else ‘undermined the capacity of the political authorities in Bengal to respond to economic crises’. The result was the famine of 1769-70. Over the next century and a half famines occurred with dreary monotony in different areas of the sub-continent, killing over 60 million people. Causes may be argued over, but the forcible plugging of peasant India into the western-dominated capitalist economic system, coupled with the destruction of the bonds of reciprocity between peasant and landlord, were certainly a major contributor.
Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries the British archipelago expanded as ‘collectors’ were established throughout the interior. As Wilson describes it, ‘in these scattered enclaves of British power Company servants transported the psychology of estrangement their predecessors had developed in the early days of the Company to new sites, trying to assert their embattled, isolated sense of power amidst an Indian population they did not trust and could barely communicate with’. Revenue was all, and this embryonic Indian Civil Service were entrusted to be scrupulous and impartial in its collection. At the same time, attempts were made to codify elements of Indian law, a development that saw British officials sitting in judgement on Indians; each side was habitually baffled by both the pleadings and judgements heard in court.
By the 1820s all organised Indian states were either conquered or incorporated into the British ruling system. A succession of small rebellions kept the British as insecure as ever, and this insecurity and paranoia led to the ‘East India Company’s fearful efforts to destroy any centres of authority in India that displayed the smallest flicker of independence’. For Wilson, this was the root cause of the insurrection of 1857-58. He concentrates on the perspective of the Indian elite classes in describing the insurrection and subsequent massacres, the final outcome of which was the assertion of British power, ‘violently and permanently, not to benefit Indians or to pragmatically advance British interests, but to undo the dishonour of 1857’s tragic defeat.
The latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are briskly described by Wilson as a mixture of wasted economic opportunities (railways that followed military rather than economic imperatives, imperial bureaucracy and metropolitan priorities stifling Indian industry) and the creation of an Indian civil society in the cultural, economic and political spheres. These chapters dwell more on Indian reactions to continuing British rule and sometimes the central thesis of the book is lost sight of. It returns with a vengeance in the pages describing the reaction that followed British defeat in east and southeast Asia in 1942 and the threatened Japanese invasion of Bengal. In the chaos of retreat from Burma, the British officers abandoned their Indian soldiers and civilian refugees in order to save British troops and white civilians. Up to 100,000 people died in the retreat, which brought to fever pitch Indian disgust for the regime, ‘the greatest upsurge of anti-British sentiment in India since 1857’. Famine in Bengal the following year compounded this, with social and institutional collapse mirroring what had happened in the same province almost two centuries earlier.
This is a big book with a bold thesis. Wilson comprehensively demolishes myths of a stable Raj, an impartial Indian Civil Service, and that British rule was in any way a ‘good thing’. English/British intrusion into India created and fed on chaos, conquest and administration from the mid-18th century onwards perpetuated that state. By the 1940s the logic of British rule arrived at its natural conclusion, as the entire sub-continent collapsed into famine, anarchy and communal strife. It was the people of what became India and Pakistan themselves, not the retreating British, who established stability. As Wilson puts it, ‘given the scale of social and political collapse, the violence which occurred in 1947-8 should be neither seen as surprising or unique … what is remarkable about the violence which accompanied India and Pakistan’s independence is the speed with which it ended’.
A few small caveats: there is a tendency to generalise for the motives and mentalities of all of the British in India, particularly in the 17th and 18th century chapters, which may be through a paucity of unofficial source material. Britons who may have had motivations above base or administrative ideas beyond idiotic are scarcely recognised or are quickly dismissed. However, this is a book that needs to be read and its conclusions assimilated into mainstream thinking on the British Empire in India and on the British Empire in general. For those with imperial nostalgia, whether in contemporary Britain or, perhaps, in east Asia, this book is a very timely reminder that European empires were founded on violence, created chaos, and left insuperable messes to be sorted out by the societies that had endured their presence.
Kevin Forkan is the archivist at M+, the new museum for visual culture in Hong Kong. Prior to coming to Hong Kong, he held a number of archival positions, including at the National Archives of Ireland. Before this he was an historian of early modern Ireland and Britain, gaining his doctorate in 2003, and continues to write and publish in this field.