Forget the romantic nostalgia—British rule in India was chaotic, exploitative and cruelby / 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.
But winning battles like the famous one at Plassey in West Bengal in 1757, which saw the defeat of the last independent nawab of Bengal Siraj ud-Daulah, was not as difficult as running a land-based empire. Everywhere they went, the British stirred up resistance, instability and uncertainty. Rather than bringing peace, as it claimed and some still believe today, the new rulers created havoc, trampling over the remnants of the Mughal state. Armies needed revenue, and revenue collection needed armies creating a vicious cycle. For the next 150 years, the East India Company was almost continually engaged in fighting south Asians in one kingdom or another.
“The British did their best to present their rule as all-powerful and steely, but everywhere they went they stirred up resistance”
In the early 19th century, the East India Company gradually absorbed into the British state. A network of district administrations were established and the cantonments filled with new bungalows. These were, in turn, filled by men and women trying to keep up with London fashions and to keep their homes as islands of Englishness. But despite the differences between the Company era and later formal British imperialism, Wilson argues that there was a clear thread running throughout: a desire for wealth, matched with the conviction that the British were superior to the Indians. Revenue collection was, this book argues, “the main priority” until independence in 1947. Actual political power was never fully established or stabilised. Some imperialists wanted to go further than others in pushing through legal and land reform, but everywhere there was agreement that India was a backward place which Britain was ordained to civilise.
During well-known flash points such the crushing of the 1857 rebellion and the Amritsar massacre of 1919, unregulated violence led to debates back home over how the empire was being run. Some supported vengeance. Charles Dickens wrote in 1857: “I wish I were the Commander in Chief in India… I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested.” Yet there was also intermittent scepticism. Disraeli, who later crowned Victoria Empress of India, nonetheless seized the post-Mutiny moment and grilled Palmerston’s government. In 1919 there was general outrage over the shooting of 300 unarmed civilians at Amritsar. Yet both sides in Britain were keen to project an essentially fragile empire as steely and all-powerful.
The Raj was neither a benign liberal anachronism nor a brutal, bloodthirsty plot to extract resources. Rather the British mostly muddled along during its time in the subcontinent, full of anxiety and unease, trying to turn a profit while also enforcing racial hierarchies.
There was one rule for Indians and another for the British. John Stuart Mill, who articulated a universal vision for the liberty of western people, advocated a very different system for Indians, based on a strong imperial state improving the “physical and mental condition of the inhabitants.” While at home, the Victorians extended education provision; in India, levels of investment in literacy were pitiful by comparison. Some of Mill’s hoped-for development did happen—there were passionate Victorian enthusiasts for irrigation, railways and other infrastructure—but it was all done on the back of poorly paid Indian labourers. Building bridges and canals were, Wilson suggests, a sop to the native population in place of granting them any substantive political representation.
In this light, British rule in India is reduced to something mucky and mundane, exploitative and callous. “As long as they could get on with their job (whatever that job was) Britons in India were rarely interested in the people among whom they lived.” This was a middle-class empire, full of bureaucratic paperwork and balance sheets. There were moments of grand Ornamentalism—for example, George Curzon’s durbar and tiger-hunts, theatrically staged for the “age of the photograph and silent film.” But on the whole, this was hardly a glorious vision.
The mercurial trick that British writers performed (and nobody did this better than the Whig historian Thomas Babington Macaulay) was to mask the mercenary reality with celebrations of the progressive triumphs of British rule. They elevated the often humdrum work of friends and relations in India to one of a civilising mission. As John Malcolm put it in 1826, looking back at his long career in India, “The inhabitants of that country rejoiced at the introduction of a government which gave toleration to their religion, security to their property and which, from its character, promised… a tranquillity more durable than they had ever enjoyed.” Versions of this benevolent but mythical vision have been doing the rounds ever since.
Even banal imperialism can have nasty side-effects. Wilson is especially good on the economic changes wrought on India’s landscape, environment and—most importantly—people. As imports of Lancashire cloth devastated the indigenous economy, Indians became exporters of raw materials rather than the craftsmen of exquisite silks and calicoes. Indian producers were increasingly locked into global markets and no longer insulated from global fluctuations in prices. Any cotton booms—like the one during the American Civil War of 1861-5—were inevitably followed by busts. In the past, people might have been protected by common lands, or access to the forests, or by feudal landowners who kept reserves of grain in stock. But now, in the era of private property and low wages, they starved. Between 12m and 30m people died from starvation or famine-related diseases in India in the last quarter of the 19th century.
The earliest meetings of the Indian National Congress in 1885 took place against this dark backdrop. Although Congress leaders were elite gentlemen and did not, at this stage, dream of total sovereignty, they were united in their criticisms of India’s sink into poverty. Once Congress did take power in 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru’s government achieved higher rates of growth and less food deprivation than the British had managed.
Of course, there is a danger here of talking of the Indians and British as antagonistic blocs pitted against one another. The reality was more complex. Though they don’t get much attention here, some Britons had a profound love of India. People such as William Jones, the brilliant scholar of Oriental languages who wrote of the Sanskrit language that it was “more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either.” Or Annie Besant, who moved to India, wore a sari and became President of the Indian National Congress during the First World War, ending up in prison for her opposition to the empire. But Wilson focuses less on the colourful exceptions than the gritty norm, dispelling fantasies of the Raj by sticking to a close economic analysis.
As the empire entered the 20th century and Gandhi transformed the nature of Indian politics, the story becomes more familiar. Gandhi brought “something like a revolution” to India, says Wilson, appealing to those Indian middle-men who made the running of the empire possible. There were plenty of wealthy Maharajas and businessmen who stayed loyal to the British and continued to benefit handsomely from empire throughout. Wilson is not unaware of this, but he downplays it in order to bring out the global and economic underpinnings of imperial decline. Gandhi’s most impressive moments of political protest tallied neatly with agrarian despair, especially during the Great Depression.
“At their departure, the British weeded out and burnt documents, removing incriminating files that could be used against them”
As the war with Japan sucked India into the Second World War, the old system broke down completely: India experienced massive mobilisation and recruitment of an army 2.5m strong, rapid inflation and widespread state intervention in aspects of everyday life. Crucially, for the first time ever, Britain owed India money. London had agreed to pay for the war, and had to honour its commitment after the conflict ended. By 1946 the shrinking number of British administrators faced hostile political factions, discontented soldiers and potential social breakdown.
In readiness for their departure, the British “weeded out” and burnt documents all over the country, removing incriminating files that could be used against them. At independence from Britain’s balance-sheet empire, bonfires of paper from the Secretariat clouded the sky in New Delhi. Twelve million people migrated across the new borders drawn in blood at Partition, thousands died in riots and from disease.
Wilson does not depict Partition as a uniquely devastating event, rightly setting it in the context of the 1940s and the high numbers of people killed by dislocation all over the world at the time. “It could have been much worse,” he boldly surmises, which is a terrifying thought, but possibly true. In the end an empire founded by conquest had come full circle, and ended in violence too.