Forget the romantic nostalgia—British rule in India was chaotic, exploitative and cruelby Yasmin Khan / December 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
The ties between Britain and India run deep. It’s a relationship that stretches back at least 400 years and if you look at their family trees, many British families have links to India. The country plays a romantic part in the British imagination and since Brexit such imperial nostalgia has made a comeback. The prime minister Theresa May, on her recent trip to India, talked up “Global Britain”—a term that echoed the time when Britain ruled the waves. But this wistful vision has a tendency to collide with political reality. In this case the Indians demanded to be treated as equals in matters of immigration, especially when it came to university students. The prime minister wasn’t so keen on that and came back snubbed, the Indian press dubbing her “muddled May.”
So what does this vision of global Britain rest on? What was the relationship between Britain and India like during those long centuries of imperial domination? Jon Wilson, a senior lecturer in British imperial and south Asian history at King’s College London, has written an eloquent book that traces the thread of British rule from the earliest days of colonial contact around 1650 through to the final lowering of the union flag in August 1947. Based on Wilson’s original digging in archives across both countries, India Conquered will be an eye-opener for anyone with rose-tinted views of the Raj.
Wilson begins with the very earliest British traders to set foot on Indian soil in the mid-17th century. There were half-a-dozen East India Company officers in a handful of small towns trading pepper, silk and cotton along the southwest coastline. Using French and Dutch footholds, the British began building forts and violently suppressed so-called pirates in order to protect their trade. These “pirates,” men like the Maratha commander Kanhoji Angré, were actually savvy and respected local leaders trying to strike a deal with the new arrivals. In revealing letters to the Governor of Bombay, Angré complained about the British letting “doubts and disputes” cloud their judgement, and treating him without respect or amity. From then on, the default position when things didn’t go the way of the East India Company was for the British to go to war.