Perfidy, Villainy, Intrigue

Ramachandra Guha

  • Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt by Richard Gott
    Verso, 568 pp, £25.00, November 2011, ISBN 978 1 84467 738 2
  • The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power by Partha Chatterjee
    Princeton, 425 pp, £19.95, April 2012, ISBN 978 0 691 15201 1

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.

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