London, Simon & Schuster, 2016, ISBN: 9781471101250; 576pp.; Price: £14.99
University of Indiana, Bloomington
Date accessed: 25 February, 2021
This week in Reviews in History we are focussing on a single book, Jon Wilson's India Conquered: Britain's Raj and the Chaos of Empire. We invited five reviewers to contribute to a round table discussion and take up different aspects of the book, with the author then responding to each in turn. Do let us know what you think, and make sure to send any suggestions for future roundtables to email@example.com.
Michael S. Dodson (Indiana University)
As a professional historian, I’ve never much liked general histories. They tend to exhibit one of several fatal flaws that renders them something of an unpleasant chore to read.
The first, and almost certainly the most ubiquitous, is that they are often built around a single man (and it is always a man). A man often of action, of a particular sort of character, exhibiting unusual determination, insight, skill, and bravery, perhaps, or an unusually immoral center and an unnatural willingness to commit (or inspire) heinous atrocities. Such histories see their protagonist at the center of their narrated world, and might very well begin with an anecdote of a formative childhood experience. The why of history is reduced to the product of personality and pathos. This is a particular version of history as story that seems to dominate the ‘his-story’ shelf of the local Barnes & Noble.
The second flaw we could identify with the label ‘just the facts, ma’am’. This is the tedious narration of event after event, approaching what William Cronon has described as a ‘chronicle’, or a ‘listing of events as they occurred in sequence’.(1) As one wades through its dense pages, there is little sense of causation or connection. Larger patterns, the interpretive element of what makes history distinct from the past, are lost like the idiomatic forest for the trees. The why of history is here almost entirely missing. It is little wonder that these books, when they end up on undergraduate reading lists, repel students from the discipline as effectively as a can of Raid repels mosquitoes.
All of this leaves me feeling deeply unsatisfied. Having read one of these books I might have learned a bit about what happened, or about a life lived, but rarely why it matters and why I should care. Perhaps this is uncharitable, or I’m reading the wrong general histories, but it more or less conforms to my experience of late.
But Jon Wilson’s India Conquered has, I dare say, changed my mind that the general history inevitably has to be a hopeless enterprise. Wilson’s history of the British Raj manages to be both a general history and a revisionist history; a history that is accessible to those with a passing interest in Indian affairs of the past and one that can be read with real interest (even relish) by the specialist. It is also a much needed antidote for those in Britain foolish enough to believe that empire made Britain great. This book is an ambitious undertaking, moreover, and a deeply satisfying one, that left me having learnt not only some new facts about Britain’s Indian empire but also rethinking some of the fundamental arguments I’ve come to adopt about the character of Britain’s empire in India, its making, and its unmaking. It never reduces historical causation to the product of a single individual (even when, in certain cases, the personalities involved might nearly warrant it – I’m thinking here of Robert Clive) and while it flirts on occasion with an excess of detail (Indian history can be quite complicated, despite what some on the political right might have us believe) it never loses sight of its point.
Wilson’s core argument is that the British empire in India was never as unified as it claimed; never as authoritative as it imagined itself to be; and never as confident in its aims and purposes as it projected. The British empire in India, Wilson writes, was ‘never a project or system. It was far more anxious and chaotic’ (p. 9). Wilson is on his strongest ground when discussing the East India Company period. He is adept at describing the start-stop progress of the Company’s trade, the intellectual/ideological motivations of the Company’s policies and practices, and the ways in which the Company interacted with Indian state actors.
We often read in accounts of the Company that when it conquered an area of land (as it often did in the 18th century!) then that area came unproblematically under its authority. From that point on, that account will simply move on to another part of the narrative of unstoppable British conquest (next the Marathas, then the Sikhs …). Yet Wilson shows us that in many cases, such as the famous defeat of Tipu Sultan of Mysore in 1799, the moment of conquest was just a beginning, and the chaos and violence that erupted in its aftermath was far worse than we have acknowledged. It is hard to underestimate how important this is. The defeat of Tipu Sultan in 1799 stands in narratives of the British empire as a moment of victory that marks the transition to a confident, powerful, and successful British colonial state in the 19th century. This is certainly how Niall Ferguson portrays it in his Empire.(2) Wilson, in contrast, reminds us of the Poligar Wars (1799–1801) that followed, in which local landlords seized power and refused to accede to British claims of sovereignty. These were bloody and dangerous times for all concerned.
Wilson also shows us that the administrative transformations wrought on the subcontinent by the Company were far less effective in prompting economic and political stability than is often thought. Traditions of local negotiation and ‘mutual obligation’ between landlords, peasants, and officials were replaced by a set of remote rules, regulations, and a distrust of local agents, the latter an approach championed by the likes of James and John Stuart Mill, resulting, Wilson argues, in a far less prosperous and stable state. In his discussion of the revolt of 1857 Wilson also consistently points out the divergence between events as they happened and British eulogizing of their own bravery and skill in battle, though without dismissing the transformative importance of these events for both Indians and Britons.
What Wilson is doing here is historiographically and culturally very canny, and this is another reason that I welcome its publication.
First, Wilson’s argument does, on its surface, recall an earlier tradition of British writing about empire that highlighted its near-accidental nature; in John Robert Seeley’s famous words, a view of empire as having been gained in a ‘fit of absence of mind’.(3) Nicholas Dirks has pointed to more recent histories that he believes carry on this tradition – the characterization of empire as possessing an internal weakness or lack of coherent vision. But these, he argues, are tantamount to ‘blaming the victim’ of Britain’s imperial rapacity.(4) Without insisting upon a directed intent, and a certain robustness of presence, in other words, discussions of empire turn into forms of apologia.
But Wilson’s claims of weakness and anxiety never stray into this territory. His view of Britain’s empire may highlight contingency and indecision, the motivating power of fear and anxiety, and the British tendency to see their own interests through a chronic short-sightedness. But Wilson also doesn’t shy from portraying it as a reprehensible undertaking that deserves not only our condemnation but also our unflinching examination of its details. In many respects, then, Wilson takes the critique of Dirks and turns it on its head, not least as he never believes Seeley’s own defense of empire as a form of service to lesser societies.
Second, and certainly not least, this is a book whose main argument sits ill at ease with many of the stories that Britons are telling themselves in these days of Brexit, Boris Johnson’s laments for the days of olde, and a renewed nationalism that imagines a near-future when Britain once again will stand astride the global south like the Rhodes Colossus. That historical British empire, while it occasionally took a wrong step (Mau Mau, anyone?), these folks argue, nevertheless brought the world liberal government, freedom from slavery, technological innovation, public health, English, integration into a new global economic order, and Christmas to boot.(5) Wilson mercilessly takes aim at this wretched nostalgia. The Indian railways, for example, a much touted ‘gift’ of infrastructural investment to the subcontinent, are instead shown to have come relatively late to India, as compared to the rest of the world, in the face of official indifference to their economic utility. In truth it was all quite different from Sir Bartle Frere’s 1863 speech on the coming of the railway age in India as a celebration of progress.
Empire was a bloody affair. Often conducted with rapacity, and as often with sheer stupidity. This is a book worth reading as a reminder that it is not a history worth repeating, and a call to arms for historians to re-engage with the medium of popular history.
- W. Cronon, ‘A place for stories: nature, history, and narrative’, in The Journal of American History (March 1992), 1347–76.Back to (1)
- N. Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, (London, 2002), p. 43.Back to (2)
- J. R. Seeley, The Expansion of England (1883).Back to (3)
- N. Dirks, Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India, (Princeton, NJ, 2001).Back to (4)
- See Ferguson, Empire.Back to (5)
Durba Ghosh (Cornell University)
Jon Wilson’s India Conquered: Britain’s Raj and the Chaos of Empire is a big book intended to provide a narrative account of how Britain, a small island nation in the northern Atlantic conquered India, a large subcontinental mass that sprawls across the Indian Ocean. At over 500 pages, it has a panoramic focus and covers a great deal of historical and political ground as it moves from the end of the Mughal Empire through the end of the British Empire to postcolonial India. The book’s primary claim is that the British experience of colonialism was chaotic, motivated by British anxieties about their authority. The result of this argument most clearly stated on p. 498: ‘This book has shown that the idea of strong, consistent, effective British power in India was indeed a delusion’. British anxieties led to paranoia so that ‘British actions prolonged and fostered chaos’.
The link between British feelings of paranoia and anxiety and the emergence of a chaotic empire are developed throughout the book; when the British feel anxious (as they do, for instance, on pages 72, 121, 185, 195, 200, 228, 296–7, 348, and 447), they became paranoid (p. 71) and entered a state of ‘paranoid paralysis’ (p. 101, see also p. 233 and p. 293) that predicated the use of state violence. Because British officials and military leaders rarely worked collaboratively with Indians, preferring to use violence or heavy-handed legal tactics to restrain Indians, Wilson argues that British officials worked with ‘a great delusion of British control’ (p. 80), facing challenges that they could barely understand or manage.
Wilson’s argument about chaos, anxiety, and paranoia invites many questions; how did the ‘great delusion’ of the British Empire manage to last nearly 200 years? Perhaps more important how did Indians experience British colonialism? and what does the historical fact of a chaotic empire explain? From writers such as Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, C. L. R. James, Chinua Achebe and others we know that the colonized experienced a great deal of alienation. We get little sense of Indian rage or anxiety here. In light of Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India, another big book on the British empire in India that came out recently, one wonders how Wilson’s text might explain the Indian experience of the British empire.
Much to his credit, Wilson offers Indian perspectives by using the example of various Indians whose papers and writings he has delved into to give us a more comprehensive sense of how ordinary Indians -– civil servants, judges, political activists and leaders – responded to the British in their midst. Embedded (perhaps too deeply) in Wilson’s narrative is an argument about the resilience of Indian social and political organizational forms and their emergence in the 20th century. This argument emerges in the early chapters of the book as Wilson describes British efforts to negotiate with indigenous rulers from the Mughals to the Marathas, and the sclerotic and confrontational ways in with British engagements emerged as flat-footed in a political environment that depended on personal contact and face-to-face negotiation. Against a flexible and dynamic Mughal regime, the British appeared as violent and coercive interlocutors in the early parts of the book, particularly chapters two and three. Described frequently as ‘impatient,’ Wilson notes that British actors on the Indian subcontinent preferred military confrontation over diplomatic negotiation. The argument about Indian ideas about governance lapses for about ten chapters that span the 19th century in which the British intensified their governance of India through expanded infrastructure, the codification of law, and the establishment of bureaucratic practices such as the census. Yet Wilson notes that by the late 19th century elite and educated Indians formed ‘a government within a government’ to challenge British governance in India. Emerging across the nation in various forms, Wilson describes groups of businessmen, religious reformers, dalit activists, legal scholars, and others began to more actively try to shape public debate about how India should be governed.
Perhaps the most poignant example of a figure trying to make Anglo-Indian relations work was Sayyid Mahmood, whose father Sayyid Ahmad Khan had been a leading reformer and had founded Aligarh University. As Wilson explains, Sayyid Mahmood ‘argued that Anglo-Indian sociability could create the foundation for a virtuous from of political power’ (309). This argument, borne of certain sense of intimacy with and understanding of British norms (Sayyid Mahmood was educated in Britain) did not go anywhere (see pp. 316–17), and Sayyid Mahmood ended up alienated from the law and the British.
Nonetheless, Wilson uses this moment to elaborate how Indians attempted to provide alternative forms of self-governance apart from the colonial government’s incomplete efforts to address Indians’ needs. As famines struck across India from the late 19th century onward, Indian groups – peasant associations in particular – came together to make demands of the government. Wilson writes very suggestively on p. 348: ‘The changing pattern of famine relief shows the beginning of what might be described as India’s welfare state, a system of rule which presupposed that the state had a responsibility to act to protect and improve society’. These expectations, coupled with Naoroji’s critique of the British drain of wealth from India, presage the emergence of swadeshi, a movement that had many parents in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Wilson pairs the well-known story of a grass roots movement to boycott foreign goods with the emergence of such Indian enterprises as the Tata Company and the Kanara Bank. In the years between the rise of Indian nationalism (from the 1880s) and the Second World War, Wilson narrates how Indians prepared to take over from the British, even if the British were not quite willing to relinquish their authority. The idea of popular sovereignty took hold among South Asia’s leaders, and as Wilson argues at the end of the book (pp. 485–9), the idea that the people should govern India became a powerful ethos for the post-colonial government. This ethos has been challenged in many ways, but the argument suggests the ways that being occupied generated modern forms of governmentality and ideas about sovereignty that predisposed the Indian government to pay attention to its varied constituents.
Aside from the trauma of partition, Wilson notes that India did not suffer the kinds of cataclysmic political upheavals that other decolonized and postcolonial states did (p. 488); this seems a much more important claim than the idea of a chaotic empire. As much as the empire appeared chaotic to the British, Indians emerged from the experience of British colonial governance with strong ideas about how to govern themselves, ideas that they have enacted and practiced as members of the world’s largest democracy.
Gajendra Singh (University of Exeter)
Imperial nostalgia has never been far from the surface of political debate in postcolonial(ist) Britain. It underpins the contours of what is considered British culture and achievement – neophyte British parliamentarians making the news by tallying the successes of the ‘British Empire’ during the Rio de Janeiro Olympics (1a), the aborted attempts to re-write a positive story of Empire into British school curricula (2a), the rise in ‘hate’ crimes against African, Caribbean and South Asian peoples in the wake of the EU Referendum of 2016.(3a) It has also been woven into the policy of the British Government. Prime Minister Theresa May’s platform of ‘Global Britain’ was previously trailed as ‘Empire 2.0’.(4a) It is in and against this new mood of Imperial nostalgia that Jon Wilson writes India Conquered: Britain’s Raj and the Chaos of Empire. As Wilson passionately asserts, ‘empire is seen to represent a straightforward set of ideas about global domination … [but this] book has challenged these myths of imperial purpose and power propagated on both the political left and the right’ (p. 500). The result is a brilliant panoptic of the British experience in India from the 17th century but one which, as a work of history, is constrained by the limits of the mission Wilson sets himself.
The book begins with an account of the rise of the East India Company as a territorial power within South Asia. Wilson documents the fantasies and anxieties that accompanied the transformation of a trading enterprise beholden to the interests of Indian polities and Indian elites into a state founded on the exclusion and repression of its Indian subjects. The author continues by documenting the competing Imperial visions of governance within the ever-expanding and changing Imperial bureaucracy of the 19th century. As the book nears its end, Wilson recounts the anti-imperial imaginings that emerged from the late 19th century and into the 20th. The scope of the work is vast and Wilson is to be commended for a work that is so eminently readable while demonstrating the hallmarks of good scholarship. The book succeeds in the goals it sets itself. It successfully challenges the shibboleths so dear to the political establishments of Britain, India and Pakistan (and, to a lesser extent, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka). Wilson exposes the mottled and troubled histories of the enduring icons of Empire – of famine twinned with railways, massacres with jurisprudence and social/racial exclusion with the colonial cityscape.
And yet, while Wilson may challenge the shibboleths so dear to the political elites within Britain and South Asia, India Conquered remains a profoundly conservative piece of historical scholarship. Wilson’s text is full of Indian actors – Company recruiters, bankers, small rajas, rebellious soldiers – but they only exist as realised through British eyes. Wilson’s panoptical narrative is an account of the British experience in India which retraces that ‘mark of deletion’ (5a) that relegates the consciousnesses, heterodoxies and imaginaries of the colonized to vigniettes of two to three paragraphs. There has been an efflorescence of South Asian scholarship over the last forty years that began by recognizing the tired limitations of viewing everything through the prisms of the colonizers. If Wilson wished to challenge the ‘postcolonial melancholia’ (6a) of the present, an account of the hollowness of Empire – that the British did not always matter – is as important as recognizing their agency.
It is difficult, at least for me, to review a text when I am not among its intended audience. India Conquered is a wonderfully well-written book. It may well succeed in introducing the uninitiated to debates with which they are unfamiliar even if it does not impact academe. But the search for a cure to the ‘Imperial delusions’ (chapter 15) in Britain and abroad does not end with the publication of India Conquered.
- I am referring here to Heather Wheeler, the MP for South Derbyshire <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/conservative-mp-heather-wheeler-brexit-british-empire-won-the-olympics-a7204546.html> [accessed 11 June 2017].Back to (1a)
- During Michael Gove’s time as Secretary of State for Education between 2010 and 2014.Back to (2a)
- 14,000 ‘hate crimes’ were reported in the three months following the EU Referendum, which was a 50 per cent increase for 10 of the largest police forces in England and Wales <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-38976087> [accessed 11 June 2017].Back to (3a)
- https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/ministers-aim-to-build-empire-2-0-with-african-commonwealth-after-brexit-v9bs6f6z9> [accessed 11 June 2017].Back to (4a)
- Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology; translated by Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak, (Baltimore, MD, 1997 ed.), p. 23.Back to (5a)
- Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia, (New York, NY, 2005).Back to (6a)
Nitin Sinha (Leibniz-ZMO)
British empire in India arose in the middle ground occupied by the contradictory forces of Britons being ‘(in)different’ to their colonial location on the one hand and feeling ‘helpless’ at the same time. This tension and pull between being uninterested and dependent, between devising rules and institutions of governance and yet remaining distant is one key feature, according to Jon Wilson, that explains both the chaotic emergence of the most powerful political entity of its time, the British empire, and its demise. ‘India before the British’, writes Wilson, ‘was, after all, a polity where power depended partly on consent, and resistance and flight were options for subjects who did not like the way a ruler behaved. Maintaining political authority needed political leaders to be sensitive to the needs of subjects when their livelihood was under threat. It was that sensitivity the British lacked.’ (p. 115).
What the British lacked, as a way of ‘practical’ political engagement, was seemingly compensated by paper bureaucracy and stability of rhetoric. Paper, contracts, deeds, and firmans were integral to precolonial rule but Wilson argues that these instruments had neither achieved a centralizing order in matters of governance nor had superseded direct, face-to-face negotiation. With the coming of the uninterested Britons, however, the idea of monopoly replaced the custom of negotiation; the paper replaced personnel negotiation.
Sometimes the echo of the older debate ‘if the empire was a result of a well-thought of plan or achieved in a fit of chance’ is found in this account as well but the gripping narrative of the book charts the readers away into details of intrigues, jealousies, wars, and lesser known individuals that show ‘how British and Indian lives became entangled’ (p. 9). What leaves readers puzzled is if ‘Britons in India were rarely interested in the people among whom they lived’ (p. 6) and if structural changes ranging from law to that of steam had failed to bring in the desired change (ch. 5), then how exactly were the lives entangled, and why? One definitely needs to unravel the messy history of empire by going beyond the stated ambitions of colonial actors, which this book exceptionally does, but there also is an unbridgeable gap between the two parallel projects of imperial history writing: returning Britons to the history of South Asia in a way to make them an entangled part and yet explaining the messiness of the empire due to their anxious and distant connection and standpoints. The book is a brilliant attempt to combine the two but also risks falling in between.
There are more engaging things that can be said about this book but in this short review I have chosen to concentrate on initial moments of empire formation as seen through the author’s frameworks of explanation. So, what is the chaos of empire exactly then? Given the current nostalgia about empire as well as its unrefined flattening critique offered by some postcolonial public commentators, the question is not only of academic but popular relevance as well. In this book Wilson (and also in his earlier one) has painstakingly reminded us to not overlook the element of anxiety that went into the making of empire. In the field of law or property, revenue or jurisprudence, the inner faultlines existed, and indeed, they must be acknowledged. However, in the last instance, Wilson also tells us that the ‘order on paper’ triumphed over the desired control on ground. Through distant engagement conquest became possible. This conquest, gradually based on the claim to reform, excluded the governed population. So, in this formulation empire led to the dispossession of native population yet imperial power itself ever remained fragile and fractured.
History sometimes requires us to paint the past in black and white. As a way of inviting the author for future conversation, let me end by asking, did the chaos of British empire make both colonisers and colonised its victim? And if stability could be understood as something that existed on paper as a strategy to appear powerful, then why not see anxiety also as a strategy of colonial governance to keep the grind of bureaucracy rolling? Why is the claim to stability a strategy and anxiety the reality of colonial governance?
Taylor Sherman (LSE)
Scanning the history shelves of any of Britain’s bookstores, one can see that historians of the British Empire in India writing for a larger audience are locked in a furious debate. One side bays with chests puffed out, ‘Empire Good!’ The other, eyes narrowed, hisses in response: ‘Empire Bad!’ Jon Wilson, with his new book, India Conquered, steps between the bayonets and the pitchforks and reminds us that the history of empire was far too interesting to be boiled down to such a facile debate. Although he makes clear his own opinion on the relative merits of empire within the first few pages, Wilson is not concerned to join that fight. Rather, he offers us a more thought provoking characterisation of the British Empire in India. Empire, he argues, was shaky and fragile. It was a succession of failures, defeats and near-misses. Behind nearly every apparently bold new initiative was a frantic desire to repair recent mistakes. The famed ‘man on the spot’ who governed British India was often anxious and lonely, huddled in a palanquin, stealing a glance at the country he ruled through a peephole. Wilson’s refreshing approach to the history of the British empire in India is engaging, surprising and necessary.
In addition to offering his readers his interpretation of empire in India, Wilson provides us with plenty of new material. This is not another tired trot through the history of the Black Hole of Calcutta, the Mutiny, the Railways and Gandhi’s campaigns. Although these well-known stories are not neglected, Wilson introduces us to new characters and events in often eloquently drawn vignettes. In addition to the Battle of Plassey, we are given the case of Moro Raghunath, an imprisoned Indian prince whose court case Wilson uses to discuss anxieties and debates over how the British thought they ought to govern India. Instead of running through the same story of the railways, we learn about steamships, useless for trade but invaluable for their promise to provide anxious administrators with more regular communication with their superiors. While Gandhi is not neglected, we are introduced to Haji Abdullah Haji Kasim, the founder of India’s first modern bank, and an exemplar of the way Indians started building their own institutions as a precursor to self-rule. While many histories of empire in India are focused on the late-19th and early-20th centuries, Wilson lingers in the lesser-known but formative period of the 17th and 18th centuries, arriving in the age of nationalism only in the final third of the book. All of this marks a welcome break from existing works.
Perhaps the most surprising argument Wilson seems to make is to downplay the importance of India within the British Empire as a whole. It would not be a stretch to reason that the same anxieties, insecurities and near-catastrophes that fuelled empire building in India helped spur British activity from Central Asia to Southern Africa. Indeed, other historians have argued as much. Moreover, administrators circulated through the networks of empire bringing ideas and practices from India to newer colonies. Further, the pink corners of the map were often populated by Indian prisoners, indentured labourers, administrators and traders. Wilson’s story pays only minimal heed to the links – intellectual, psychological, economic and demographic – between India and the rest of the empire. He concedes only that there were brief moments, such as the First World War, in which India became vital to the empire as a whole. Wilson cautions us not to mistake rhetoric for reality when we read empire builders’ claims of establishing peace or ruling by law in India. One wonders if the same applies to the assertion that India was the jewel in the crown of the British Empire.
During the last 20 years in the Anglophone world it’s been difficult to escape public argument about the morality of empire. From Niall Ferguson to Nigel Biggar, Seamus Milne to Shashi Tharoor, whether they think ‘Empire good!’ or ‘Empire bad!’, protagonists in the debate assume that ‘empire’ is a singular subject we are already familiar with. My purpose in writing India Conquered was to challenge that assumption. As Taylor Sherman so wonderfully summarises, the book ‘steps beyond the bayonets and pitchforks and reminds us that that the history of empire was far too interesting to be boiled down to such a facile debate’.
India Conquered attempts to break down the history of British political power in India into a geographically-dispersed sequence of interactions between Britons and Indians, to show that ‘the idea of strong, consistent, effective British power in India was indeed a delusion’. Its dis-aggregative approach develops a sense of the continuous patterns of British activity (anxiety, paranoia, impatience and violence, as my reviewers note) without suggesting that Britain’s empire in India was driven by a single set of interests or ideology, or by the intentions of a single group of (inevitably) men. Through specific detail about the lives of empires’ protagonists and subjects, that approach was also intended to draw the interest of a non-academic readership.
It’s a great pleasure that those intentions were well-understood and appreciated by most of the scholars who read and reviewed India Conquered. Even better is that the book provoked interesting questions; I’d like to thank each of the five reviewers for their engaged and thought-provoking responses. I’m glad to have persuaded Michael Dodson that writing general histories for a non-academic audience isn’t a hopeless enterprise, for example. The challenges to me cluster around three sets of relations, which I’d like to briefly discuss in the rest of this response: between India and the rest of empire; between empire’s myth of stability and reality of disorder and anxiety; and perhaps most importantly, between imperial institutions and the Indians entangled and subjected to them.
Taylor Sherman notes, rightly, that India Conquered ‘downplay[s] the importance of India within the British empire as a whole’, an argument she finds surprising. In doing so the book runs against the grain of a swathe of excellent scholarship on the migration and exchange of people, money, things and ideas within imperial ‘circuits’ and ‘networks’; it also challenges the move within some strands of scholarship to see every particular phenomenon as the effect of a global process of some kind.
India Conquered de-globalizes imperial India for a mix of tactical, methodological and empirical reasons. To have constantly made connections and comparisons beyond India would have made a complex and unwieldy book impossible to write and read. I worry that much of the literature on imperial connectedness simplifies what happens in particular places. The recognition that similar processes happened elsewhere should not nullify the argument that the character of British (and post-imperial) state power in India emerged from encounters specific to place and time. Nor does it imply everything is linked up through an external system defined with an abstract terms. Instead, it merely calls us to write an intelligent comparative history. If there is an implicit argument about the nature of Britain’s empire beyond India in India Conquered, it is that it was diverse and incoherent too, and never a singular or stable form of political power. Of course imperial India was connected to other parts of the world; India is a big place, historically a central node in the global economy, and people and things move. But not every connection was part of a system or even network; and there were many links that had nothing to do with empire at all. Britain’s empire was a disparate collection of territories ruled by such radically incompatible forms of rule they rarely cooperated effectively. As Andrew Dilley and I argue in a (we hope) forthcoming article, to argue otherwise is to define ‘empire’ in such vague, almost metaphorical terms the concept loses any empirical purchase at all. For scholars to view everything happening in India through a global lens is (ironically) to be myopically influenced by the specific social conditions of our own labour; historians of South Asia must members of one of the most globally-connected fields of work in the world. In the process, we forget the importance of other, smaller scales to much of what happened in the past.
As Sherman rightly suggests, India Conquered does indeed challenge the assertion that India was ‘the jewel in the crown of the British empire’. In retrospect, perhaps I didn’t argue for the unimportance of India to British global power before the First World War as persuasively as I should have done. There’s more work to be done here, not least in re-examining the argument Berrick Saul made now 57 years ago about the centrality of India to Britain’s balance of payments. That work needs to begin with contemporary understandings about what the ‘British empire’ actually was. Many 19th-century British commentators didn’t see India as a ‘jewel’ at all. Liberal imperial commentators emphasized the centrality of the white settler empire; J. R. Seeley thought British rule in India a temporary aberration against the normal pattern of ‘English’ expansion through settlement and colonization. Conservative and former imperial officers who thought India should be central to Britain’s imperial vision often complained that it wasn’t. One of the earliest uses of the phrase ‘jewel in the crown’ in reference to India (in the Oriental Herald in 1833) worried that such an important ‘prize’ should be ‘so lightly estimated’ by other Britons.(1b)
Nitin Sinha’s perceptive review focuses on the gap between the aloof myth of order which I argue Britons discussing India tried to project, and the practical entanglement with the lives of their subjects. Sinha suggests India Conquered’s effort ‘to combine the two … risks falling in between’. He’s right of course, necessarily so: the gap between imperial order and the complex and unacknowledged connections which existed between Britons and Indians was the major source of empire’s chaos.
Chaos is another way to describe confusion or unpredictability, conditions in which the human effort to comprehend and tell coherent stories about what’s going on repeatedly fail. India Conquered argues that India’s British sovereigns were structurally incapable of telling meaningful stories about their rule. Their desire for domination prevented British administrators from acknowledging the role of Indian actors in shaping their own actions. Without that acknowledgement, British narratives of control ended up as a series of thin, anxious and abstract accounts which were quickly contradicted by the turn of events.
Sinha suggests that I say ‘in the last instance … “order on paper” triumphs over the desired control on the ground’, but I don’t think I’m ever quite so categorical. As abstract and aloof as the British tried to make their rule, the local conditions of domination or otherwise always threatened to interrupt the official narrative. Violence always created a reaction, for example. The exercise of state power, by the army or revenue service, always depended on Indian agents who didn’t share the goals and sensibilities of British officials. In a sense, my point is that a regime which desperately desired distance could not avoid proximity; yet, their desires prevented them from talking intelligibly about what was unavoidable. Perhaps India Conquered is too glib with its talk of the failed ‘myth’ of order against the ‘reality’ of chaos and anxiety; there are many different orders of real life, of course. But that language works because there was an important difference between the two: order always existed in the unrealised future, while anxiety, like chaos, was a condition pertaining to the present which British officers wanted to overcome.
Both Durba Ghosh and Gajendra Singh challenge India Conquered by asking what the book has to say about the Indian experience of empire. Ghosh is right to note an argument about ‘the resilience of Indian social and political organizational forms’ embedded ‘perhaps too deeply. The book follows Faisal Devji’s analysis of an idea (or more accurately, political practice) of India as ‘an empire of distinctions’, in which both diversity and hierarchy were carefully balanced and protected, enduring from the eighteenth century into the Gandhian politics of the early 20th century.(2b) To a degree, the restoration of that idea and its fusion with democratic practices after the traumatic chaos of 1947 explains the political stability of India for the first two decades after independence. The point of course is that that idiom was only one of many through which Indians made sense of their political situation. An important theme is the way in which the violent yet limited forms of imperial power incited resistance yet also allowed space for a range of Indian political and social forms. Often at a distance from the most concentrated sites of imperial power, India under British rule was the scene of a far more interesting variety of ideas and social and political movements than the most crude brands of colonial discourse analysis would imply. Many – those which offered non-violence as a counter to a regime explicitly founded on force – developed through a direct engagement with imperial power. Many others did not.
This latter emphasis leaves me puzzled by Ganjendra Singh’s review, to the point of wondering if he read the book I wrote. India Conquered’s primary purpose, as Taylor Sherman notes, is not to challenge imperial nostalgia (there are plenty of other texts which do that better), but to make an argument about the character of Britain’s regime in India and its relationship to Indian action. The ‘Great Delusion’ (the phrase ‘imperial delusions’ never appears in the book) discussed in chapter 15 is of the British empire’s power and coherence, not its virtue or benevolence. Its argument is precisely (as Singh puts it) ‘that the British did not always matter’; that claims about British agency were often empty and (to use Singh’s words) ‘hollow’, and that empire’s putative subjects acted with a force and logic not determined by imperial power. To give two practical examples. The book shows how the East India’s Company’s presence in India from 1740s–1760s, including the actions of India’s supposed ‘conqueror’ Robert Clive, were shaped most of all by the dynamics of Maratha politics. Secondly, the book offers a genealogy of Indian nationalism showing how Indian political leaders created ideas and institutions challenging ‘the logic of conquest’, but which had a shape and rhythm that can’t be understood only by looking through the lens of ‘the colonizers’. Each of these arguments are made far more than ‘two or three paragraphs’. Neither reflect phenomena which imperial officers were even conscious of, both relying on either scholarship or sources that hasn’t been refracted through an imperial lens.
Perhaps the misunderstanding occurs because Singh thinks India Conquered is something that it does not claim to be. It is not a history of India, nor of Indian politics. It is a history, as Singh puts it of ‘the British experience in India’, in its very broadest sense, and thus of ‘empire’ in its complexity. As I argue above, that history can’t be understood without understanding South Asians’ actions beyond ‘the prisms of the colonizers’, but it isn’t the only history of the subcontinent necessary or possible.
If Singh hasn’t misread India Conquered in this way, the only sense I can make of his critique is that he thinks imperial power is not a subject worthy of study; that the only legitimate scholarship touching on South Asia exclusively focuses on the testimonies, actions and agency of the ‘native’ (what other word can one use if one adopts this position?) population of subcontinent.
Of course Singh’s own scholarship belies this argument in practice. He describes his research interests as ‘histories of colonialism in South Asia’. In a wonderful article on ‘India and the Great War’ (which sadly I hadn’t come across while writing India Conquered) he reconstructs colonial political intentions alongside ‘the politics of organized Indian nationalisms’ during wartime. In the piece, Singh is concerned both with the quick emergence of the idea of deploying Indian soldiers outside the subcontinent on an unprecedented scale, and the neuroses which their reliance on Indian troops caused amongst imperial politicians. He suggests that those neuroses had some kind of root in the existence of revolutionary terrorism, and that non-revolutionary Indian soldiers, existing ‘between mutiny and obedience’, didn’t think or act as the British wanted them to. But, the very fact words such as ‘fantasies’ and ‘anxieties’ can be used to describe these beliefs suggests imperial ideas and actions had a logic of their own, which needs careful study. As Singh accepts, the ‘prism of the colonizer’ doesn’t explain many things about the subcontinent; but it does need to be understood. Our chronologies even overlap, both India Conquered and Singh’s essay arguing that the tensions evident during the war marked ‘the beginning of the end of the British Raj in India’.(3b)
In his review, Singh accuses me of retracing ‘the mark of deletion’ which ‘relegates the consciousness, heterodoxies and imaginaries of the colonized to vignettes of two or three paragraphs’. The reference is to Jacques Derrida, in Of Grammatology, discussing Heidegger’s discussion of the supposed way in which the ’western episteme’ from Plato to the 20th century, had erased ‘the question of being’. As much as I value Heidegger’s work, his most absurd claim is that there a single system of thinking dominated ‘the west’ for more than two millennia. The idea of ‘colonialism’ as a single monolithic all-powerful structure of knowledge and power is similarly ridiculous. If that is Singh’s point, I wholeheartedly agree.
- Oriental Herald, II, 9 (1833), 222.Back to (1b)
- Faisal Devji, ‘The mutiny to come’, New Literary History, 40, 2 (2009), 411–30.Back to (2b)
- Gajendra Singh, ‘'India and the Great War: colonial fantasies, anxieties and discontent', Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, 14, 2, (2014), 343–61.Back to (3b)