Eric Stokes

Eric Stokes whose books include The Peasant and the Raj, is Smuts Professor of the History of the British Commonwealth at Cambridge.

Misguided Tom

Eric Stokes, 5 March 1981

Tom Arnold owes the preservation of his name to his connections. Although he ended life as an obscure don in the struggling Catholic university at Dublin, his lineage and acquaintances kept him close to those who set their mark on the public life of 19th-century Britain: second and favourite son of Dr Arnold of Rugby, brother of Matthew and William Delafield Arnold, brother-in-law of W.E. Forster, father of Mrs Humphry Ward, grandfather of Julian and Aldous Huxley and of Mrs G.M. Trevelyan. His knockabout career helped enlarge his connections. At Oxford he stood on even closer terms of friendship with Clough than did his brother Matthew, despite all the effusive lamentation of the latter’s Thyrsis’. Emigrating in 1847 to New Zealand and then in 1849 to Tasmania, Tom Arnold made friends with Alfred Domett, Browning’s ‘Waring’, and with F.A. Weld and Andrew Clarke, both subsequently important as Singapore proconsuls at the time of British expansion into the Malayan peninsula. His conversion to Catholicism in 1855, and his enforced resignation as Tasmania’s inspector of schools, brought him back to Britain and to Newman’s door.

Empress of India

Eric Stokes, 4 September 1980

A century ago, Alfred Lyall, the notable Anglo-Indian administrator, sociologist and man of letters, speculated in his Asiatic Studies on the remarkable stability of India in the later 16th century onwards and its collapse into seeming anarchy in the 18th. For explanation he pointed to a succession of four strong and long-lived rulers – Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb – and to the constant centralising tendency of Mughal rule. While creating and sustaining an empire of unparalleled strength and size, this centralising tendency steadily destroyed all autonomous sources of resistance and hence ultimately deprived the ruler of all independent means of support. When the line of succession of strong men failed, there was nothing to break the fall. The top-heavy empire came down in a ruinous crash that left India in a state of complete political dissolution. Lyall saw the British Raj as falling into the same error of over-centralisation, so exposing the citadel of authority to direct attack from the democratic centralism of a modern nationalist movement. Whatever the half-truths implicit in his analysis, he grasped the historic importance of the tension between the centripetal and centrifugal forces in the sub-continent. It proved impossible, however, to alter the character of the Raj. British efforts from the 1880s to build up political outworks by decentralising and devolving power on princely states and provincial governments were too half-hearted and too tardy. The nationalist movement seized on the truth that to defeat a centralised foreign dominion it had to model itself on similar lines. This meant not only centralisation but autocracy.

The Road to Chandrapore

Eric Stokes, 17 April 1980

It is a commonplace assumption among modern historians that minority rule has always had to rely on devices to preserve social distance. These have usually consisted of distinctions of dress, comportment and speech, and of restrictions on commensality and connubium. In Western societies they have operated within the cultural framework of class. Kenneth Ballhatchet takes the equally familiar notion that in colonial societies alien minority rule translated class distinctions into those of race. In India he sees the social aloofness of the ruling white minority as being reinforced during the 19th century by a growing taboo against sexual intercourse across the colour line. Half a century ago, Percival Spear, in his delightful book The Nabobs, traced the transformation from the 18th-century ménage of the European merchant, with his harem and upper-class Indian habits, to the 19th-century world of the civil lines, in which the monogamous British official and his marble-white family led a wholly segregated existence. Spear put the change down to the psychological needs of the conquering élite to distance itself from its subjects, to the arrival of a large number of European women, and to the ascendancy of Evangelical attitudes of contempt and superiority towards Indian culture. The great merit of Ballhatchet’s book is to have brought the subject back under serious academic scrutiny, while the freedom now permissible because of changes in public taste has enabled him to pry into the seamier details.


Sex and the Raj

17 April 1980

Eric Stokes writes: In my review of Kenneth Ballhatchet’s interesting book I suggested that the working of race and sex attitudes was more subtle and complex than he seemed ready to admit, and that he had allowed himself to be governed too rigidly by unexamined stereotypes. He now acknowledges that racial segregation of the sexes was not a sine qua non of the maintenance of alien rule in other...

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