In 1841 Thomas Carlyle declared that ‘the History of the world is but the Biography of great men.’ Soon after, Thomas Babington Macaulay, a policymaker in British India as well as a historian, wrote that ‘a people which takes no pride in the noble achievements of remote ancestors will never achieve anything worthy to be remembered with pride by remote descendants.’ He hoped to instil a pride in the nation’s history that would inform the way Britain acted in his own time, as the world’s chief imperial power. The statues of great men that began to populate towns and cities later in the century were intended to convey this understanding of history: even controversial figures like the rapacious conqueror Robert Clive were enrolled in the pantheon of imperial greatness.
The statue of the Bristol slave trader Edward Colston, toppled last year, was put up in 1895, though he died in 1721. But the strategy was a failure: more people learned about Colston in the 24 hours after his statue fell than in the 125 years it stood in Bristol city centre. In south Mumbai, the statue of the 19th-century anticolonial thinker and activist Dadabhai Naoroji stands virtually ignored at a busy intersection. It is hard to disagree with Dinyar Patel when he writes at the beginning of his important biography that this vital figure in the history of modern India – the first Indian professor at Elphinstone College, the first Asian MP, one of the founders and early presidents of the Indian National Congress – has not been given his due.
Born into a Parsi family in Bombay’s ‘Native Town’ in 1825, Naoroji was himself shaped by the idea of empire and the historical sensibility that Macaulay helped establish. In his 1835 minute on Indian education, Macaulay declared that ‘a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia’. English came to replace Persian as India’s official language of government, part of a move to create ‘a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinion, in morals and in intellect’. Indian elites began to invest in European-style education, establishing colleges like Elphinstone in Bombay. Quickly recognised as a prodigy, the young Naoroji was urged by a teacher to move to a free English-language school. His teachers there recommended that he undertake further study: this meant Elphinstone, which he attended from 1840 to 1845 on a scholarship.
Elphinstone helped inculcate in Naoroji a belief that he had a particular role in shaping his country’s history: his maths professor dubbed him the ‘Promise of India’. The Victorian notion that history is made by great men profoundly shaped his sense of his own agency. Patel’s biography does not quite recognise this (perhaps because it essentially belongs to the same tradition), though he recounts how Naoroji was inspired by certain biographical accounts, especially that of Thomas Clarkson, a leader of the campaign to abolish the slave trade as well as its first historian. His writings consolidated the view of abolition as the work of a few heroic men fulfilling a providential role. Clarkson’s determination to realise his own destiny and the ideology of Victorian reformism lay behind Naoroji’s dogged commitment to the idea that electing more Indian MPs to Westminster was the most effective way to secure self-government in India. Without taking into account this ‘great man’ view of history, the logic behind Naoroji’s tactics remains slightly obscure, as it does in Patel’s account.
Naoroji had to forge a career at a time when Indians were barred from most of the jobs he aspired to. He became an assistant master at Elphinstone, teaching a range of scientific and technical subjects. In 1854, thanks to the college’s Indian donors, he was appointed a full professor of mathematics and natural philosophy, the first Indian to hold this rank at a British-administered college. He also began to play a significant role in reform movements – especially the effort to press the colonial government to spend more money on education – and, by helping to found newspapers, clubs and schools, created new spaces for Indian writing and for discussion on political and social issues.
His burgeoning political career was transformed in 1855, when some Parsi supporters sent him on a steamer to Britain to help found an Indian textile company – an attempt to reclaim part of the Indian textile trade (Cama & Co was, Patel claims, the first Indian commercial firm in the UK). As he observed Western prosperity, Naoroji became convinced that India’s poverty was not simply the result of insufficient investment in education but of a persistent drain on its wealth. The British Empire wasn’t benefiting India but drawing money out of it. From the 1860s to 1880s, a period of policy-driven famines on the subcontinent, he took on the monumental task of using the colonial state’s own statistics, published in its annual reports on Moral and Material Progress, to prove the ‘drain theory’ of British rule in India, challenging official claims of imperial benevolence and making a case for greater Indian participation in governance. Naoroji pointed out the many errors in official figures and uncovered the evidence of abject poverty that was buried in government reports. He also mined official revenue statistics in imaginative ways that enabled him to make a more accurate assessment of poverty in India, calculating the earliest estimates of the country’s gross income per capita and showing that basic provisions for Indian prison inmates gave them a higher standard of living – on paper – than ordinary Indian peasants. In a series of publications including the much read pamphlet The Poverty of India, Naoroji showed that Indian tax revenues flowed into British coffers – particularly as a result of the ‘excessive employment’ of Britons in the Indian civil service – rather than being reinvested in India. He followed a long line of critics who recognised the extractive nature of empire, but was the first to harness economic scholarship to the political goal of greater autonomy.
He also became intrigued by the nominally independent princely states – ruled indirectly by the British – which he saw as natural laboratories for testing his theory that greater autonomy was the key to the reinvestment of Indian wealth. To that end, in 1873 he took a position as prime minister of the princely state of Baroda, but, finding his reformist ambitions thwarted by the bitter struggle between the maharaja and the British resident, resigned in frustration after a year.
For decades, colonial subjects had cultivated individual British MPs to advocate for them in Parliament – Naoroji had worked with the Liberal MP Henry Fawcett. From the 1880s, inspired in part by the efforts of Irish nationalists at Westminster, Naoroji began to shuttle between India and Britain, hoping to acquire more direct influence by entering Parliament himself. The Indian National Congress was founded in Bombay in 1885; the following year Naoroji was nominated as the Liberal candidate for Holborn. He was playing a long game: he didn’t expect to win the seat but hoped to advertise the Indian cause and to become better known in the party.
He won 1950 votes, not enough to defeat the Tory candidate, who polled 3651, but enough to establish himself as a plausible contender. On the campaign trail he played up his admiration for British values and backed the cause of Irish Home Rule, garnering the support of Irish MPs. Patel shows us how Naoroji painstakingly formed relationships with influential figures in the Liberal Party, including the ageing John Bright and the anticolonial poet Wilfrid Blunt. He forged links with women’s rights activists and working-class representatives, sharing a platform with William Morris. He supported improving the lives of labouring Britons, while educating his audiences about the plight of poor Indians. He allied with Josephine Butler, who had risen to prominence through her fight against the Contagious Diseases Acts, which sanctioned intrusive examinations of women’s bodies in the name of preventing disease among soldiers. This repressive law had an Indian counterpart – British and Indian struggles against injustice overlapped. Naoroji served as vice-president of the Women’s Progressive Society and the International Women’s Union; he worked closely with the Women’s Franchise League.
Imperialism was the foundation of Britain’s power and wealth, and so criticism of it was integral to campaigns for liberty. It was not only Indians and the Indian diaspora who looked to Naoroji as an ally and representative, but British workers, suffragists and Irish nationalists. These relationships grew from Naoroji’s tactical outreach – what Patel calls his ‘politics of empathy’ – but were also a consequence of the way imperial capitalism served to connect activists’ concerns. Patel makes it impossible to see Indian interests in late Victorian politics as the niche preoccupation of progressives like Annie Besant and Henry Hyndman. When in a speech in 1888 the prime minister, Lord Salisbury, referred to Naoroji as a ‘black man’ (‘however great the progress of mankind has been,’ he said, ‘and however far we have advanced in overcoming prejudices, I doubt if we have yet to go to that point of view where a British constituency would elect a black man’), he both acknowledged Naoroji’s national political relevance and increased it. Patel could have done more to expose the layers of racism in this incident, especially given the importance he assigns to Naoroji’s solidarity with the global African diaspora.
After Naoroji clinched the candidacy for Central Finsbury in 1888, a faction of the local branch held a secret meeting to elect a different candidate (who then mobilised the Star newspaper against Naoroji on racial grounds). But Naoroji’s supporters protested, even threatening to run a Labour candidate if he was pushed out, and the hostile faction backed down. The constituency’s overwhelmingly radical Liberal and socialist workers had proved themselves more progressive than the local power brokers. Though the Liberals positioned themselves against the Conservatives’ unapologetic devotion to an empire founded on notions of British racial superiority, the racial views of the party elite were not dramatically different. Naoroji still had to contend with a vicious slander campaign led by fellow Liberals. Allies in India meanwhile offered moral, administrative and financial support in the run-up to the 1892 general election, at which party officials concerned about a possible Conservative victory finally gave their backing to Naoroji’s candidacy. Patel provides a gripping account of the election campaign: armies of women volunteers mobilised on polling day, and Naoroji won by three votes (increased to five in a recount), the narrowness of the margin testifying both to the difficulty of the task he had set himself, and to the fragility of his achievement. Congratulatory messages arrived from India and around the world.
In Parliament, Naoroji strove to represent his constituents and the interests of Indians. He voted for Irish Home Rule, and agitated for Indian civil service examinations to be held in India as well as London, seeing this as a necessary first step towards increasing Indian participation in government. His willingness to indulge in disingenuous praise of British rule made little difference to the persistent opposition he faced. Frustrated by the inaction that followed his 1893 resolution on civil service exams, he toured western and northern India to showcase the support for his ideas: when he arrived in Bombay 500,000 people joined a procession through the city. He propounded his drain theory from the floor of the Commons, but elicited only derision. He lost his seat at the 1895 election, when an enthusiastically pro-empire Unionist government came to power (the Conservatives had shrewdly cultivated a more docile Parsi candidate, Mancherjee Bhownaggree, for the nearby constituency of Bethnal Green).
Radicalised by defeat, Naoroji became an open and unapologetic advocate for swaraj, or self-rule, and backed emancipatory causes around the world. In India, anticolonialism acquired new force in 1905 after the British partitioned Bengal in a clear attempt at divide and rule. In 1906, Naoroji launched his final parliamentary campaign, in North Lambeth. He was hampered by the same racially inflected factional divisions he had faced in Finsbury, and lost badly. Later that year, he accepted the presidency of the Indian National Congress, and in an address in Calcutta, the 81-year-old Grand Old Man of India made the call for swaraj, binding the Congress to that radical objective in place of its earlier agenda of piecemeal reform.
Patel’s biography tells the story of a particular individual but also of the networks that shaped him: a global history of a single man. His account illuminates the intellectual richness and dynamism of the early Indian nationalist movement, but also opens a window onto the histories of Britain’s Indian community and the global Indian diaspora, from British Guiana to Madagascar to South Africa and the United States. Naoroji was an essential node in global anticolonial and anti-racist networks. He learned from the American Black experience, while himself inspiring such activists as W.E.B. Du Bois. Through the American anticolonial activist George Freeman, an Irish immigrant, his writings informed the anti-imperial politics of the presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Patel shows how Gandhi and Nehru followed Naoroji in appealing to progressive British allies, and how his arguments about the extractive nature of empire influenced many anticolonial movements. Naoroji connected the Indian cause to campaigns for freedom all over the world. This reminder of the global dimension of India’s nationalist struggle is timely, as supporters of Modi’s government demonise international support for protest movements in India as ‘anti-nationalist’.
Naoroji was egalitarian in his thinking about gender, race and religion, as were many Britons of his time. This makes it difficult to accept the common defence of his contemporary Cecil Rhodes – whose statue remains so contentious – on the grounds that his racism was ‘typical’ of the era. Though Patel doesn’t explicitly connect Naoroji’s story with current debates about British imperial history, his narrative quietly puts paid to the idea that we can evaluate empire in terms of pros and cons, or argue that British rule in India was no more oppressive than, say, the preceding Mughal empire. Apologists for empire still cite British-built railways in India as proof of its munificence, though Naoroji proved a century and a half ago that they benefited the British rather than the Indian economy. He saw the gap between imperial rhetoric and reality and grasped that this rhetoric was deployed tactically: this book should help resurrect his arguments about the colonial causes of Indian poverty. The idea that Indian women needed British protection from feckless Indian men also dissolves as Patel describes how Indian communities demanded education for girls, against the priorities of the Raj. His portrayal of the popular Indian pride and investment in Naoroji’s work also punctures myths about the early Congress movement’s lack of mass appeal.
Among the book’s most subtle protests is its refusal to engage with British efforts to weaponise Naoroji’s Parsi identity to undermine his claims to speak for India. Parsis are a tiny but prominent ethnoreligious community, descended from Zoroastrians who left Iran for Gujarat a millennium ago. The British refrain that Parsis were ‘foreigners’ or an ‘alien race’ that owed their survival to British protection is absurdly self-incriminating. It would be interesting to know how Naoroji responded to such attacks, though the adulation he received on his Indian tour of 1893-94 is sufficient evidence of his acceptance across different communities.
Gandhi saw Naoroji as an inspiration, and claimed he would have followed the policy of mass action. He advanced Naoroji’s criticism of colonial education by questioning what was being taught rather than the issue of provision, recognising that ‘the foundation that Macaulay laid of education has enslaved us.’ The anticolonial mass movement led to the foundation of new educational institutions, including National College in Lahore, Jamia Milla Islamia in Delhi, Benares Hindu University and Vishwa Bharati at Santiniketan. By encouraging mass action, Gandhi pushed back against the ‘great man’ view of history, which had so shaped Naoroji’s approach to political change – Naoroji’s backing for collective action could be seen as a mark of the decolonisation of his own mind.
The brutal crushing of an earlier mass rebellion, the Indian uprising of 1857, had dramatically dented British faith in the Macaulayan objective of turning Indians into Englishmen, and must have informed Naoroji’s study of poverty as well as his distaste for violent tactics. This biography demonstrates his stunning capacity to speak out despite repressive colonial censorship and sedition laws. But what was the colonial government’s view of him? Was he censored or watched? What allowed him to say things that others could not? Contemporaries certainly wondered how censorship shaped his public utterances, which suggests that we too ought to consider how he adapted his criticisms of imperialism, and how censorship affected the press coverage of the words and actions Patel draws on for his account.
Patel ends his book with the image of Naoroji’s unnoticed statue in Mumbai, and his biography is another reminder, post-Colston, that statues do not promote public knowledge of history. They are the product of a view of history that obscures the mass participation which is essential to change, such as the working-class support that saved Naoroji’s candidacy in Finsbury. His story reminds us that election to a political position, even if it’s a historic achievement, is no substitute for collective action. And at a time when Boris Johnson’s government is insisting on the Macaulayan idea that the British people should view their nation’s history with pride, Patel’s book reaffirms the simplest reason for thinking critically about empire: the violent impoverishment of colonies. In his presidential address to the Congress in 1906, Naoroji called for ‘reparation’ from Britain for India’s ‘past sufferings’ – a call that remains powerful today.