Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt 
by Richard Gott.
Verso, 568 pp., £25, November 2011, 978 1 84467 738 2
Show More
The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power 
by Partha Chatterjee.
Princeton, 425 pp., £19.95, April 2012, 978 0 691 15201 1
Show More
Show More

In 1931, Gandhi visited England to discuss India’s political future. In a speech at Oxford, he hoped that when the empire finally ended, India would be an ‘equal partner with Britain, sharing her joys and sorrows’. Nine years later, on the death of his close friend C.F. Andrews, an Anglican priest, he wrote that while the numerous misdeeds of the English would be forgotten, ‘not one of the heroic deeds of Andrews will be forgotten as long as England and India live. If we really love Andrews’s memory, we may not have hate in us for Englishmen, of whom Andrews was among the best and noblest.’

Gandhi notwithstanding, scholars and polemicists continue to catalogue the crimes of the British long after the empire has been abandoned. The latest to join the list are Richard Gott and Partha Chatterjee. Gott, who describes himself as ‘a historian in private practice’, has written a wide-ranging study of resistance to British rule in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, North America and the Antipodes. Some of the longest chapters in his book deal with India. Chatterjee is a paid-up member of the professoriat, dividing his time between Calcutta – where for many years he headed a productive centre of historical research – and New York, where he teaches at Columbia. His focus is sharper, or narrower, than Gott’s: he deals with the impact of the British on Calcutta, with occasional digressions into other parts of the subcontinent.

Britain’s Empire contains crisp accounts of hundreds of battles, from skirmishes to full-scale wars. Slave rebellions in Jamaica, Haiti, Guadeloupe, Trinidad, Barbados, St Lucia; settler struggles in North America and South Africa; aboriginal revolts in Australia and New Zealand; Xhosa uprisings in the Cape; the resistance of Indian princes to the British advance – the range of cases covered in the book is staggering. The range of sources is less impressive: there is a heavy reliance on 19th-century authorities, and no reference at all to the Subaltern Studies Group in India or to environmental historians in North America, who deal directly with Gott’s concerns. The writing, however, is clear and partisan. Gott stresses, on the one side, the bravery and heroism of the rebels, and, on the other, the savagery of the British: the burning of homes and villages and standing crops, the looting of markets and treasuries, the beatings and lashings, the hangings and shootings of rebels, and the incarceration of dissidents in penal colonies. He presents the American War of Independence as essentially a land grab. Behind the rhetoric of republicanism and fiscal autonomy lay the desire to deal with the Native Americans without interference: George Washington is described archly as ‘the castigator of the Native Americans’. When the war ended, with the settlers as victors, one of their generals said with satisfaction that ‘we … can dispose of the lands as we think proper or most convenient to ourselves.’ Gott extends the same argument to South Africa, where the ‘Afrikaner settlers wanted a free hand to steal the land of the Xhosa,’ yet justified their opposition to the British in republican terms.

The British, Gott writes, ‘have always enjoyed hearing and reading about the crimes of people they plan to overthrow’. One such fallen prince, Siraj-ud-daulah, is the central figure of Chatterjee’s book. In June 1756, Siraj laid siege to the British garrison at Fort William in Calcutta. The governor and many of the soldiers fled by boat. When those who remained surrendered, they were put in a small (or large) room, where, by the next morning, some (or many) had died of exhaustion, dehydration, asphyxiation or through fighting one another for the water reluctantly and parsimoniously brought them by Siraj’s guards. In January 1757, the British reoccupied the East India Company’s settlement in Calcutta. In June a force led by Robert Clive deposed Siraj after defeating him in a battle near Plassey (Palashi), helped by the defection of the nawab’s key advisers and financial backers to the British side. The first account of the ‘Black Hole’ – as the room where the soldiers were incarcerated became known – was written by one of the survivors, John Zephania Holwell, and stressed that the nawab had given his word that ‘no harm should come to us’: the deaths, Holwell said, were the ‘result of revenge and resentment’ on the part of the guards. Later accounts, however, claimed that Siraj was responsible: his perfidy and cruelty were evident, it was thought, in the fact that he took one surviving Englishwoman into his harem.

Chatterjee catalogues the varying representations of the incident. Early histories of the British presence described Siraj and his nobles as ‘crafty, devious and venal’. In 1817, however, James Mill, in his History of British India, deplored the ‘plotting and intrigue’ that deposed the nawab, and subsequently, in a gesture of reconciliation, an obelisk put up by Holwell to commemorate the deaths was removed. But by the 1840s the mood had changed once more. In an essay long taught in British schools, Macaulay claimed that the episode manifested ‘all the vices of Oriental despotism’. Siraj himself was ‘one of the worst specimens’ of these despots, ‘sunk in indolence and debauchery … chewing bang, fondling concubines and listening to buffoons’, and had committed a crime of such ‘singular atrocity’, that ‘nothing in history or fiction’ could approach it. In Macaulay’s view, the Mughal Empire was ‘even in its best days, far worse governed than the worst governed parts of Europe now are’. Writing in 1858, a prominent British Orientalist, H.H. Wilson, described the Black Hole as ‘an exemplification of Mohamedan insolence, intolerance and cruelty’. Lord Curzon, viceroy of India between 1899 and 1905, took ‘a special interest in memorialising the Black Hole’. He commissioned a new monument, purporting to represent the exact dimensions of the room, to be placed in a prominent location in Calcutta, next to the main post office in Dalhousie Square.

Histories from the other – Bengali – side presented a different picture. Schoolbooks published in the 1870s spoke of Clive as a villainous intriguer. A play about the Palashi battle, written in 1875 and performed to appreciative audiences, said of the English that ‘legend has it that they are born of monkeys in the wombs of demons. They came in the garb of merchants and now they shake the world with their armed force.’ One of the first nationalist histories, written by Akshaykumar Maitreya in 1895-96, portrayed Siraj as a ruler ‘fighting to defend the sovereignty of the state, which he believed was the precondition for peace and prosperity in his kingdom’.

Macaulay was being turned on his head: Clive was now a ‘greedy and deceitful man’ – while his Bengali opponent was ‘a determined and principled political actor’. In another hugely popular play, of 1905, the nawab had become ‘the principal voice of the people-nation, cutting across religious and class divisions, and unified by its opposition to the danger represented by the foreign power and its native allies’. The play was influenced by the Swadeshi movement, which encouraged Hindus and Muslims to come together to burn foreign goods and demand self-rule. ‘Their thirst for conquest is endless,’ Siraj says at one point of ‘the foreigner’. In 1908, the myth of the Black Hole was emphatically put in its place by a student of Akshaykumar Maitreya, who wrote:

We do not believe that there ever occurred an event that could be called the Black Hole tragedy; what did occur was not of any great importance. For the few English officials used to a luxurious life, a night spent in captivity was probably traumatic. But there is no political significance attached to the event. In every country of the world, those defeated in battle are thrown into prison. Those injured in battle often die in captivity, and others suffer hardship … What happened was something that happens everywhere between victors and vanquished.

In 1940, the nationalist leader Subhas Bose led a movement to have Curzon’s monument removed. There was now a popular ministry in power, run by Muslims; they endorsed the demand. The British governor prudently acquiesced. The monument was moved from Dalhousie Square to a rarely visited cemetery.

While the British Empire lasted, India was its largest and most important component, and it has continued to be central to debates on whether the empire was a good thing, a bad thing, or neither or both. An early entrant in this Historikerstreit was Karl Marx. In the summer of 1853, he wrote two articles on British rule in India in the New York Daily Tribune. He wrote that ‘the profound hypocrisy and inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilisation lies unveiled before our eyes, turning from its home, where it assumes respectable forms, to the colonies, where it goes naked.’ He noted the destruction of village communities and craft traditions ‘through the brutal interference of the British tax-gatherer and the British soldier’ who resorted to ‘atrocious extortion, when simple corruption could not keep pace with their rapacity’.

Having listed the crimes, Marx then set them in context. Indian society was static, self-satisfied; its political institutions and social customs restrained ‘the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies’. He acknowledged that England, ‘in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them’. He continued: ‘But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.’

Many critics of empire work in what can broadly be called the Marxian tradition, yet for all their admiration of his method, they are embarrassed by these remarks. Neither Gott nor Chatterjee refers to them: in fact, contra Marx, they argue that Indian rulers were more benign, or at least less brutal, than those who defeated them. Chatterjee suggests that both Tipu Sultan of Mysore, who stoutly resisted the British advance in the 1790s, and Wajid Ali Shah, the ruler of Awadh deposed by the British in the 1850s, were cultured and progressive leaders who might – had the white man never come – have led India to a less painful and more honourable compact with the modern world.

Gott’s defence of Indian rulers takes an even stranger form. He writes of Tipu Sultan that he ‘resisted the encroachments of the Christian British on India’s Islamic realm for nearly two decades’. This is highly misleading: for one thing, the majority of Tipu’s subjects weren’t Muslim (but Hindu, Christian and Jain); for another, the clash was territorial rather than religious, the warring parties fighting over control of land rather than souls. Tipu and his father, Hyder Ali, along with other Indian princes, are retrospectively endowed by Gott with a precocious anti-colonial consciousness. He writes of Maratha chiefs in the early 19th century that though they ‘embarked on a final effort to drive the British out of India’, their ‘brave efforts were not crowned with success’. By then the Marathas controlled a fraction of the territory they had at the height of their powers; even had they won this particular war they could scarcely have thrown the British out of the subcontinent. Again, of the ruler of Bharatpur, a tiny chiefdom north-west of Delhi, Gott writes: ‘He had long nursed plans to drive the British out of Rajasthan and out of India.’ No source is given for this striking assertion.

Reading Gott, one might think the British introduced punitive taxation and retributive justice to the subcontinent. In truth, precolonial rulers were just as avaricious and brutal. The tax burden on the peasantry under Mughal rule was often heavier than under the British. Some (though by no means all) Muslim rulers discriminated heavily against subjects of other faiths. The Marathas whose bravery Gott salutes maintained the most extreme gender and caste hierarchies.

Chatterjee, writing as a part-time New Yorker, draws a comparison between the annexation of Awadh in the 1850s and the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the one serving as the prelude to the other. ‘The global techniques of empire sharpened in the days of British paramountcy in India,’ he claims, ‘continue to shape the practices of empire today.’ The Black Hole of Empire ends with several pages of high rhetoric on how the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq lie in a direct line of descent from British misdeeds in Calcutta. Thus the rich particularities of Bengali history are subsumed into a generalised philippic against empire.

The darkest sides of colonialism were manifested in the plantation societies of the Caribbean and the settler societies of North America and Australia. What is now the world’s richest and most powerful democracy was founded on the back of genocide and slavery. In India, on the other hand, with its dense population, large cities, literate intelligentsia and resistance to Old World diseases, the methods of European colonists were less brutal and more accommodating. Imperial rule rested more directly on local collaborators. By Gott’s own account, in the army that defeated Tipu Sultan in 1792, Indians outnumbered Europeans by five to one. He might have added that only a decade and a half after the Sikh chiefs of the Punjab surrendered to the British, Sikh troops were heavily involved in the suppression of the great rebellion of 1857.

In the same year, the British set up the universities of Madras, Bombay and Calcutta, where the clerks, civil servants, magistrates and teachers who made up the lower and middle echelons of the Raj were to be trained. Yet these universities also had other and more unexpected effects. As the sociologist André Béteille has written, they ‘opened new horizons both intellectually and institutionally in a society that had stood still in a conservative and hierarchical mould for centuries’. They were ‘among the first open and secular institutions in a society that was governed largely by the rules of kinship, caste and religion’, and even if ‘the age-old restrictions of gender and caste did not disappear in the universities … they came to be questioned there’. Gender and caste hierarchies were undermined outside the universities as well: the growth of cities and factories allowed low castes a measure of social mobility. Indian writers and activists used the printing press and the political party – both new to the subcontinent – to advance radical ideas of social justice and political equality.

Revisionist historians suggest that the British bestowed the institutions of modernity on the Indians. In truth, the Raj was laissez-faire in cultural terms. Missionary activity was sharply curbed after 1857; caste and religious customs were rarely challenged. The British were far from being militant reformers, but indirectly and unwittingly they enabled the circumstances in which social reform could take place. The exposure to progressive ideas and the taunts of foreigners provoked a long line of Indian thinker-activists – among them the precocious liberals Rammohan Roy and G.K. Gokhale, the anti-caste activists Jotiba Phule and B.R. Ambedkar, the feminist Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and the nationalist icons Gandhi and Nehru – to put in place the elements of a democratic and plural society. They laid the groundwork for the Indian constitution, a document that was, and is, radically dissimilar, in intent and content, to the Hindu or Islamic texts that governed the statecraft of the chiefs who, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, opposed the expansion of European rule. By turning the country into a republic, the Indian constitution broke all ties with the British crown. In the decades since, the two nations have met and dealt with one another as equal partners, much as Gandhi hoped. It may be the case that of all relations between former colony and erstwhile empire – just think of the French and the Algerians, the Dutch and the Indonesians, the Belgians and the Congolese, or even the Americans and the Iraqis – this one is the least acrimonious and most productive for both sides.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences