Skip to content

Response to Review no. 622

I am grateful to Michael Dodson for his admirable review of my recent book, The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain. He has clearly summarized the major arguments of the book, as well as the thematic structure I used to highlight these arguments. Beginning with my central point, that empire in India as elsewhere was born in scandal—both for the colonized and the colonizers—I used the extraordinary drama of the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings (1786–1795) as the narrative fulcrum for a larger story about the transformation of empire. The categories of my study, accordingly, were: ‘scandal’, ‘corruption’, ‘spectacle’, ‘economy’, ‘sovereignty’, ‘state’, ‘history’, ‘tradition’, and ‘empire’. Dodson succinctly captures my principal concerns, especially for the early chapters. But he does not make it sufficiently clear that in some ways the trial of Warren Hastings was a pretext for a larger concern with figures as various as Robert Orme, George Patterson, and Paul Benfield. Nor does he stress enough the central role of Edmund Burke in the book, for Burke was the critical hinge for most of my thematic concerns, from corruption to sovereignty, and from economy to tradition. Thus his complaint that I did not rely extensively on the voluminous archival record around Hastings himself is somewhat beside the point.

To be fair, Dodson recognizes that my principal purpose was not to write a revisionist historical account of the great trial, but rather to write more generally about the transformation of empire from a time when it was marinated in scandal (so much so that the great historian Robert Orme found himself unable to continue writing the history of his hero Clive after 1763) to the respectable, even heroic, reputation it attained in the British imagination after the reforms of the late-eighteenth century and under the leadership of Lord Cornwallis and Marquess Wellesley. Dodson is certainly right to insist that the impeachment trial was only one component in this transformation, although it played an extraordinary role first in dramatizing the scandals of Company conduct and then in diminishing the moral force of Burke’s passionate assault, as it dragged on for nine long years and finally made Hastings by far the more sympathetic figure than his assailant. Indeed, it is remarkable that the trial has been so little written about since the canonical study by Peter Marshall published more than forty years ago, and it seemed important precisely to suggest some of the shortcomings of his study, as well as call attention to the larger significance of the trial as one of the great public dramas of the late-eighteenth century in Britain. In taking the trial as a kind of anthropological moment in the history of empire, I meant to scrutinize how it was that the transformation in empire could take place so quickly, miraculously, and permanently. And I set out to analyze what was at stake in this great transformation, for empire as an historical form became fundamental to the subsequent history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for Europe as well as the entire colonial world. From the perspective of London in the late 1760s and early 1770s, this hardly seemed foreordained.

That Burke played not just a critical but also a contradictory role in this transformation was another of my principal concerns. Political theorists/historians in recent years have been noting the significance of Burke’s jeremiads against Company rule, arguing variously that the enlightenment itself was hardly predicated on sympathy with an imperial project and that Burke’s own investment in the prosecution of imperial crime in India reveals the more problematic history of liberal political theory (associated as it is with the imperial figures of James and John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, and Thomas Macaulay, among others) (1). Within this context, it seemed important to provide some historical corrective. Burke’s ringing condemnations of Hastings and the more general class of nouveau riche Nabobs were, to be sure, impressive (and they are still moving, especially as demonstrations of the kind of moral conscience one would wish would have been heard more clearly, for example, in the Unites States in the years immediately before and after the invasion of Iraq). Nevertheless, Burke’s parliamentary polemics must also be seen as historically situated at a time when Britain was consolidating rather than abandoning its own imperial ambition, in the wake of abiding concern that the loss of America would continue to deliver a major blow not just to Britain’s prestige but its wealth and global power as well, especially in competition with France. So, while I noted that Burke had used the phrase ‘drain of wealth’ in characterizing the economic impact of Company rule in Bengal (thus presaging the nationalist economic critiques of R. C. Dutt and others), I also noted that Burke was principally concerned with the effects of misconduct in India (or for that matter revolution in France) on England. Indeed, Burke understood all too well that all political regimes had unsavory origins, and that one had to draw the veil over the violence that predicated the social and political present. At the same time, and of more relevance for this review, Burke became an embarrassment to later generations of imperial historians. Even if the great trial ultimately became a pawn in the inexorable logic of empire, it was also an event well worth recalling at a time when Niall Ferguson was suggesting that the British Empire provided a useful model for the United States in evaluating its military and political ambitions in the Middle East.

It is true, therefore, that I wrote this book in part to call attention to the scandals that were at the heart of imperial origins, even as I went on to write about the way in which scandal was shifted from its early association with Europeans to reside resolutely in the customs and population of India itself. But I did not, pace Dodson, suggest that, ‘any potential complexity within imperialism, as a political and cultural phenomenon … [must] be drained from it in order to emphasize the deleteriousness of empire’. This is Dodson’s principal objection to my book, and this question has figured centrally in numerous other reviews of the book, in ways that betray a growing polemicism in current debates about empire. I have dealt centrally with the complexities of imperial rule in all my earlier scholarship, in areas ranging from the historical collecting project of Colin Mackenzie, a Scottish military man turned surveyor who was hardly a cog in the imperial apparatus of conquest and rule, to the immensely complicated relationships of colonial officials, missionaries, and upper caste district magistrates and notables in the hookswinging debates of the late-nineteenth century. Both of my previous books were efforts to demonstrate the complex dynamics of social change under colonial rule. I wonder who is perpetuating, to quote Dodson, ‘an essentially false dichotomy’. The Scandal of Empire emphasizes scandal because scandal was the dominant optic for how the Company was viewed in Britain during the second half of the eighteenth century. At least (and this is my argument) that is how it was viewed until the efforts of Pitt, Burke, Cornwallis, and Wellesley (each in their own way of course) collaborated first with the growing concerns about France and the rising level of British patriotism (as has been so well demonstrated by Linda Colley) and second with missionary fervor about issues such as sati and thuggee (not to mention the much larger, though not unrelated, global fervor about slavery) to make empire not just better, but a necessary feature of British identity. This too is a complex historical issue, and while it requires considerably more historical attention in the future, I don’t think I told a simple story.

To say that the beginning of empire was not a pretty thing (as Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper have recently written about the ‘end of empire’) (2) is not to empty the eighteenth century of historical richness. In calling attention once again to the corruption and indeed massive peculation of Company servants, the unbridled ambition, greed, and duplicity of a figure such as Robert Clive, the sordid imbrication of profit and policy in British dealings with the Nawab of Arcot, the manifest contradictions that were part of British representations of the question of sovereignty in India, the steady drain of wealth from India to England, the ultimate inability of Burke to prosecute his case against Hastings, and the worrisome implications of the repeated historiographical assertion that India, and Indians, were the principal authors of their own imperial domination, I was hardly denying the complexity of early imperial history in South Asia. Dodson is emphatically right in maintaining that historical attention to the complexities of empire is necessary if we are to understand how empires, ‘come about, how they flourish, and how they are undone’. This has been my own position over the years as I have argued about the complex relationship between imperial structure and colonial agency, as also the conditions for colonial ‘hegemony’ and domination.

Nevertheless, this book, unlike my previous work, is as much a work of historical synthesis and argument as it is the product of archival scholarship. I build on the extraordinary historical work of several generations of scholars, including Lucy Sutherland, J. D. Gurney, Philip Lawson, Huw Bowen, Ranajit Guha, Bernard Cohn, C. A. Bayly, Michael Fisher, Sudipta Sen, and, of course, Peter Marshall, whose many wonderful books still provide the scholarly spine for understanding the activities of the British in India in the eighteenth century. Of these historians, the only one with whom I argue is Marshall (3), who, as Dodson himself makes clear, has never taken on board the extent to which the unfolding of decolonization and post-imperial historical perspective has made empire a vexed historical problem for the present age. I am hardly to be faulted for not attending to Dodson’s own bibliography of writing by younger historians, all of which was published after my own book (4). But if my book constitutes for Dodson an orthodox position, it in fact stands as a solitary reminder that as complex as the origins and early history of empire in India might have been, the larger context was still permeated by domination, greed, and rampant irresponsibility, at least until empire was naturalized as a political form with equal legitimacy in Europe as the nation. It is indeed the task of new generations of historians to complicate, revise, and contest the work of previous generations. But in the end, surely, the issue is not whether one is an anti-imperialist or not, but rather to agree that whatever we historians debate, we need to contextualize and pose the larger questions – and the moral dilemmas – that the history of empire continues to bequeath to the present age.


  1. See, for example, S. Muttu, Enlightenment against Empire (Princeton, 2003); and U. Singh Mehta, Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Political Thought (Chicago, 1999). Back to (1)
  2. ‘The end of empire is not a pretty thing if examined too closely’. C. Bayly and T. Harper, Forgotten Wars: Freedom and Revolution in Southeast Asia, (Cambridge, Mass., 2007), p. 532. Back to (2)
  3. Dodson seems to assume that I am quarrelling with C.A. Bayly, when in fact I use his work in the most approving of ways. Back to (3)
  4. All but for one article, written by my former doctoral student Philip Stern, whose work is cited in my book. Back to (4)