Ferdinand Mount

  • Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India by Shashi Tharoor
    Hurst, 295 pp, £20.00, March, ISBN 978 1 84904 808 8
  • The Making of India: The Untold Story of British Enterprise by Kartar Lalvani
    Bloomsbury, 433 pp, £25.00, March 2016, ISBN 978 1 4729 2482 7
  • India Conquered: Britain’s Raj and the Chaos of Empire by Jon Wilson
    Simon & Schuster, 564 pp, £12.99, August, ISBN 978 1 4711 0126 7

Ferdinand Mount looks at how India was governed strictly for the benefit of Britain.

I believe as strongly as I believe anything that you oughtn’t to go. Have you thought enough of the horror of the solitude and the wretchedness of every single creature out there and the degrading influences of those years away from civilisation? I’ve had experience – I’ve seen my brothers and what’s happened to them, and it’s sickening to think of.

Lytton Strachey was trying, in vain as it turned out, to dissuade his latest fancy, Bernard Swithinbank, from going out to India. Stracheys galore had staffed the Raj throughout the 19th century, and Lytton’s dearest friend Leonard Woolf had just gone out to Ceylon. But here as in so many departments of life, the wind of change was blowing through Bloomsbury. From 1912 onwards, it was possible not only to talk openly of semen and atheism but also to ridicule the empire as an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. ‘Our imperial destiny’ was now as ripe for ridicule as the mumbo-jumbo of Christianity.

Strachey argued that the Raj was bad for Britain and the British. In Inglorious Empire, Shashi Tharoor argues, with equal passion, that it was much worse for India and the Indians. In 1700, when the British were mere traders clinging on to a few coastal toeholds, the Emperor Aurangzeb ruled over a country that accounted for a quarter of the world’s economy. By the time the British left, India’s share of global GDP had sunk to just over 3 per cent. The reason for this headlong decline was simple, Tharoor argues: India was governed strictly for the benefit of Britain. The rise of industrial Britain was financed by the depredations of the Raj. The soldiers of the East India Company smashed the handlooms of the Bengal weavers, whose delicate silks and muslins were prized all over Europe. William Bentinck, governor of Madras and later governor-general, wrote that ‘the bones of the cotton weavers were bleaching the plains of India.’ Tariffs of 70 per cent and more were imposed on the textiles India produced, and cheap British cottons flooded the Indian market.

Bishop Heber, that acute observer and author of the lines ‘though every prospect pleases, and only man is vile’, reported that ‘the peasantry in the Company’s provinces are, on the whole, worse off, poorer and more dispirited than the subjects of the native princes.’ F.J. Shore, a dissident British administrator, told the House of Commons that ‘every successive province, as it has fallen into our possession, has been made a field for higher exaction, and it has always been our boast how greatly we have raised the revenue above that which the native rulers were able to extort.’ Though India was abounding in natural resources, would-be Indian industrialists like the Tata family were repeatedly baulked from setting up steel mills or digging coal mines. In the British view, India’s destiny was to remain what Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson called in Why Nations Fail (2012) an ‘extractive colony’.

The Raj was seen at its worst in the hardest times, responding to poor harvests and the resulting famines as reluctantly as the home government did in Ireland. The last large-scale famine in India took place under British rule in Bengal in 1943, exacerbated by Churchill’s insistence that the grain must go to the troops and not to the people who grew it. Tharoor quotes Amartya Sen’s memorable dictum that there has never been a famine in a democracy with a free press, because public accountability ensures effective response. But you didn’t even need democracy: fellow-feeling would have been enough. My great-great-grandfather John Low, arguing against Lord Dalhousie’s proposal to annex Nagpur in 1854, recalled from his experience all over India cases

of our having suffered heavy losses in revenue, and very extensive losses in human lives, owing to the want of wealth among our native subjects, while in the neighbouring native states, which had experienced exactly the same drought, they did not suffer nearly so much, either by the death of their subjects, or in revenue, solely because the men of property made large advances of money from their private funds, whereby great numbers of men, by digging new wells, were enabled to raise sufficient grain to keep them alive for the season.

Despite the inequality and oppression, peasants and landowners were all in it together in a way the British were not.

In the case of the worst disaster of all, the terrible slaughter following Partition, Tharoor places much of the blame on the British policy of ‘divide and rule’. British proconsuls usually denied that this was their policy. Lord Dufferin said it would be ‘diabolical’ deliberately to exacerbate race hatred among the queen’s Indian subjects. Sir John Strachey, Lytton’s uncle, said the same, but conceded, as did Dufferin, that ‘the existence of hostile creeds among the Indian people’ was essential for ‘our political position in India’. The Raj depended on resisting the rise of a common feeling of Indian nationhood, on suppressing the growth of a demos. Herbert Risley, the architect of the partition of Bengal, admitted frankly, though not publicly, that ‘one of our main objects is to split up and thereby weaken a solid body of opponents to our rule.’ The British looked kindly on the formation of the All-India Muslim League in 1906, as a counterweight to the increasingly Hindu-dominated Indian National Congress, and ultimately agreed to the request of the Aga Khan, the league’s president, to incorporate separate Muslim electorates for the new councils proposed in the Morley-Minto Reforms of 1909, although Morley and Minto themselves were queasy about the departure from the inclusive secular democracy now taken for granted in Britain.

This thorny question deserves more space than Tharoor has room for in his polemical essay. Francis Robinson, in his study Separatism among Indian Muslims (1974), was inclined to spread responsibility three ways: while Hindu nationalism and the Muslim minority’s fear of being swamped certainly contributed, he concludes firmly that ‘there can be no doubt that British policy played the main part in establishing a separate Muslim identity in Indian politics by 1909.’ At no time were the British keen to promote a unified Indian public opinion. Paradoxically, the more bitter and explosive the divisions, the better the British could argue that the subcontinent could remain united only under their Raj.

Tharoor argues that India would eventually have united of its own accord, Raj or no Raj. There had, after all, been times in the past when most if not all of India had been under a single rule, under Ashoka and Aurangzeb, for example. ‘Throughout the history of the subcontinent,’ he argues,

there has existed an impulsion for unity … Every period of disorder throughout Indian history has been followed by a centralising impulse, and had the British not been the first to take advantage of India’s disorder with superior weaponry, it is entirely possible that an Indian ruler would have accomplished what the British did, and consolidated his rule over most of the subcontinent.

A loose, extended Maratha empire – the Maratha rulers controlled much of the subcontinent until their defeat by the East India Company in the early 19th century – ‘would have led to an inevitable transition to constitutional rule’, on the lines of the Glorious Revolution in England.

Tharoor concedes that ‘counterfactuals are impossible to prove.’ The fact that following the British departure, the subcontinent is today split into three states (four, if you include Sri Lanka) does not support this one, and Pakistan’s subsequent history isn’t an advertisement for the inevitability of constitutional rule, though India’s is.

But then Tharoor is decidedly disenchanted by the style of democracy bequeathed by the British: ‘The parliamentary system has not merely outlived any good it can do; it was from the start unsuited to Indian conditions and is primarily responsible for many of the nation’s principal political ills.’ For many years, Tharoor was known to the viewing public as the honey-tongued voice of the UN. He nearly became secretary-general, finishing second to Ban Ki-moon in 2006. Since then he has been a Congress MP and a junior minister in India. But he has not liked what he has seen, and urges instead a presidential system which permits ‘decisive action’ and whose leaders ‘can focus on governance rather than on staying in power’. He loves several of Britain’s legacies to his country – tea, cricket and P.G. Wodehouse – but not the one that most Brits are proudest of, the parliamentary system.

He is no more enamoured of the political export many Indians are proudest of: Gandhi’s tradition of non-violent resistance. For many freedom-seeking nations, he argues, ‘non-violence has offered no solution.’ It works only against opponents who are vulnerable to a loss of moral authority, who are ‘capable of being shamed into conceding defeat’ – like Britain. He insists that Nelson Mandela, while acknowledging Gandhi as a great source of inspiration, ‘explicitly disavowed non-violence as useless in his struggle against the ruthless apartheid regime’.

But was it so useless? Was there not in South Africa in the 1980s a moral turn, not least inside the Dutch Reformed Church, which fatally undermined the regime’s self-confidence? And was not that turn inspired by the example of Mandela in the ultimate non-violent situation, banged up on Robben Island? What about those equally startling velvet revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe, or more recently in Burma? Most comparative analysis of regime change over the past twenty or thirty years suggests that non-violent civic movements have, as often as not, played a key role. As I write, a million supporters of the Turkish opposition leader are marching along the coastal highway to Istanbul in protest against President Erdoğan’s crackdown. The march bears an inescapable resemblance to Gandhi’s Salt March of 1930. One suspects that Tharoor might be on the side of Erdoğan, who is no slouch at ‘decisive action’.

That Britain could be shamed into making concessions to peaceful campaigns of resistance surely says something about the nature of the Raj. Kartar Lalvani would argue that it says a lot. Lalvani is as distinguished in his field as Tharoor is in his. He is a pioneer in nutritional science and founder of the huge company Vitabiotics; his brothers Gulu and Partap founded Binatone, a pioneer of consumer electronics (the company was named after their sister Bina). Like the Tatas, the Lalvanis are just the sort of versatile and dynamic businessmen whom Tharoor describes as thwarted at every turn by the British.

Yet in The Making of India, Kartar, now in his mid-eighties, tells a story quite different from Tharoor’s, a story of intrepid railwaymen throwing bridges across torrents and gorges, selfless engineers digging canals and building dams, stories Kipling could have hymned, and did. At the outset, Lalvani takes note of the Honourable Company’s rampant exploitation and corruption in the early years: it is, he writes, ‘amply described in several books on colonial history, most of which were written by the British themselves, and none of it is contested here’. By contrast, he sets out to record the liberal side of the legacy. Everywhere, he sees lighthouses, dams and dry docks, all built and financed by the British. Lalvani plays down, too much I fear, the restrictions on Indian enterprise, but he does have a case: there were cotton mills in Bombay by 1854; by 1914, India was the fourth largest cotton manufacturing nation and was more or less self-sufficient in coal, iron and steel, which was why it could make such a substantial and selfless contribution to the British war effort. What Tharoor dismisses as mere ‘positive by-products’ Lalvani sees as central to the India the British left behind: the botanic gardens, the forest conservancies, the Archaeological Survey of India (brainchild of the otherwise obdurate Curzon) and the free press.

Lalvani does not undervalue the achievements of the Mughal Empire, but its canals and irrigation tanks and roads had fallen into decay after the terrible Persian and Afghan invasions of the mid-18th century. For his part, Tharoor cannot forbear to praise the achievements of men like Arthur Cotton, whose Godavari Delta irrigation scheme remains much as he left it in 1852. Lalvani’s enthusiasm is winning, but his splendid list of British engineering achievements cannot disguise the reality that for far too long all the steel for rails and bridges was shipped from Britain, and so were the engineers. The book’s jacket shows the inauguration of the Iritty Bridge in Kerala in 1933. Even at that late date, there isn’t a brown face to be seen among the triumphant engineers in their trilbies and topis and the ladies in their long frocks. These magnificent feats were a fine way of maintaining full employment in Glasgow, Newcastle and Preston, not so hot for Bombay and Calcutta. When the Indian shipyards finally came fully on stream, yards like Palmer’s of Jarrow felt the blast. The Jarrow March was, you might say, made in Bombay.

As you would expect, Tharoor and Lalvani take different views of Niall Ferguson’s unfashionable praise of empire, but oddly they both quote his key claim:

What is very striking about the history of the empire is that whenever the British were behaving despotically, there was almost always a liberal critique of that behaviour from within British society. Indeed, so powerful and consistent was this tendency to judge Britain’s imperial conduct by the yardstick of liberty that it gave the British Empire something of a self-liquidating character.

This backhanded compliment helps to explain Tharoor’s recurring note of puzzlement. His book arose out of a speech he gave to the Oxford Union on the resolution that ‘Britain owes reparations to her former colonies.’ His combative remarks were posted on the web and sparked millions of hits. Tharoor was startled: ‘I honestly did not think I had said anything terribly new. My analysis of the iniquities of British colonialism was based on what I had read and studied since my childhood.’ He claims he was doing no more than repeating the standard nationalist account. So he was, but he was also repeating that passionate liberal critique which had resounded, often fortissimo, in British debate when Indian nationalism was still a half-formed dream.


Other empires have had internal critics. Bartolomé de las Casas’s critique of the cruelty of the Conquistadors led to his official appointment as ‘Protector of the Indians’ and to the passage of the New Laws which gave the Indians some nugatory protection. In ancient Athens, Plutarch tells us, there were furious attacks on Pericles in the Assembly over the tributes extorted from the island colonies, which were supposed to pay for ships to protect them from the Persians but were instead lavished on the Parthenon (and piled up inside it, the building being less a temple than a strongroom). But nothing equals the sustained ferocity of the attacks on the East India Company until it was finally abolished after the Mutiny. Nothing exceeds the raw passion of the denunciations by Burke and Sheridan and, it is often forgotten, by Adam Smith too, on the greed and duplicity of the nabobs in general, and Warren Hastings in particular.

As a young man, Lytton Strachey admired Hastings and wrote a long thesis on him, while dismissing Burke as ‘an ignorant enthusiast’. What strikes me on rereading those great philippics is, on the contrary, their exactness and perceptiveness. In his speech in December 1783 on Fox’s East India Bill to bring the Company under government control, Burke took aim at the central premise of the Company’s existence: ‘Magna Charta is a charter to restrain power and destroy monopoly. The East India charter is a charter to establish monopoly and create power.’ That power had led to despotism, beggary and famine in ‘a people for ages civilised and cultivated; cultivated by all the arts of polished life, while we were yet in the woods’. The Company had ruined every prince with whom it had come into contact, broken every treaty it had signed. Above all, the British were birds of passage, raptors in a hurry:

The natives scarcely know what it is to see the grey head of an Englishman. Young men (boys almost) govern them, without society, and without sympathy, with the natives. They have no more social habits with the people than if they still resided in England; nor indeed any species of intercourse but that which is necessary to making a sudden fortune.

There can be no defence that we are retrofitting modern standards of morality. The opium trade, which was one of the most prized British monopolies, first in Bengal, then in Malwa, where the odious Lord Ellenborough fought a short sharp war to secure it, was widely viewed with disgust at the time. In Disraeli’s Sybil, Charles Egremont lays into a thinly disguised William Jardine, the founder of the great house of Jardine Matheson: ‘Oh, a dreadful man! A Scotchman richer than Croesus, one McDruggy fresh from Canton, with a million of opium in each pocket, denouncing corruption and bellowing free trade.’

Among the more uninhibited generals and proconsuls, there was also a tradition of cynical candour, beginning with Robert Clive himself. His barefaced defence to the House of Commons select committee inquiring into the Company’s practices – ‘My God, Mr Chairman, at this moment I stand astonished at my own moderation’ – set a high benchmark. But the villainous Charles Napier, still secure today on his perch in Trafalgar Square, matched him: ‘Our object in conquering India, the object of all our cruelties, was money. We shall yet suffer for the crime as sure as there is a God in heaven.’ As for his most famous exploit: ‘We have no right to seize Sind. Yet we shall do so, and a very advantageous, useful, humane, piece of rascality it will be.’ Dalhousie was no more high-minded in his correspondence: ‘As for the moral obligation which some assert that we are under by reason of our Paramountcy, to rescue the subjects of native powers from what we call oppression, whether they ask for rescue or not; I regard it as nothing less than an ambitious and hypocritical humbug.’ This unvarnished tradition continued until the last days of the Raj. As late as 1928, Baldwin’s home secretary Sir William Joynson-Hicks, the notorious ‘Jix’, said: ‘I know it is said in missionary meetings that we conquered India to raise the level of the Indians. That is cant. We conquered India as an outlet for the goods of Britain. We conquered India by the sword, and by the sword we shall hold it.’ So much for the mission civilisatrice.

British officials, both good and bad, were painfully conscious of the distance between them and the people they ruled. ‘We are strangers here,’ Macaulay said during his three years in India. Bentinck said the same: ‘We are in fact strangers in the land.’ So did Dalhousie twenty years later: ‘The entire English community is but a handful of scattered strangers.’ And they had deliberately made it that way. From the Cornwallis Code of 1780s, each wave of reform served further to estrange the rulers from the ruled. Old India hands looked back fondly to the days when British officers lived with their Indian sweethearts and slept under canvas among their sepoys. They went hunting together and sat side by side at the nautch shows. But the coming of the bungalow and the memsahib had put an end to all that. The Modernisers, the Evangelicals and the Utilitarians had no time for such messy mingling. ‘Non-interference’ was to be the watchword. Or as the historian Ranajit Guha called it, ‘dominance without hegemony’.

Jon Wilson’s India Conquered could be described as a rewriting of Guha from a British viewpoint. Or you could call it a history of aloofness. From the start, the British saw themselves, in another pithy phrase of Guha’s, as ‘an absolute externality’ to Indian society. We must go back to the start to rid ourselves of any comforting assumption that the spirit of imperial aggrandisement developed only by accident – ‘in a fit of absence of mind’, in John Seeley’s indelible mot. The charter that Elizabeth granted the merchant venturers on New Year’s Eve 1600 had a chilling arrogance about it, which was to cast a long shadow. The Company was to enjoy a monopoly on trade with all parts of Asia ‘not in the possession of a Christian Prince’. The queen gave the Company full powers to fine, ban and even lock up ‘interlopers’ and anyone who presumed to interfere with its rights and privileges. To defend those rights, the crown granted free passage for ‘six good ships and six good pinnaces, well furnished with ordnance, and other munition for their defence, and five hundred Mariners’. The whole enterprise was to be undertaken ‘for the Honour of our Nation, the Wealth of our People … the Increase of our Navigation and the Advancement of Lawful Traffic’. The Company’s potential for aggressive expansion was inbuilt and wholeheartedly backed by the state. In theory, it could have carried out that enterprise by flexible negotiation, by building up intimate relationships with local potentates. What Wilson shows so well is how prickly and high-handed the Company’s first emissaries were, how ready to resort to force and to deploy that state backing. By 1686 James II was signing an authorisation for English soldiers to fight the Mughal emperor.

The Company soon became what Burke called ‘a kingdom of magistrates’, ‘separated both from the country that sent them out and from the country in which they are’, ‘a Commonwealth without a People’. In others words, irresponsible and out of control. Hence the stream of regulating acts which pursued the Company from the late 18th century on. The sweeping arrogance of the Company’s charter enabled this malign development, but it was intensified by the British compound of umbrageousness and standoffishness. Wilson records delicious extracts from the diary of Julia Thomas, whose husband, James, was appointed judge at Rajahmundry in 1836. They were a well-meaning couple, who set up a school for Indian children. But James was incurably reclusive. He refused to engage with the locals and when they travelled through his patch he kept the door of his palanquin closed, despite his host’s plea that he show himself to the people he ruled.

Why did the British keep their palanquin doors closed? A sense of racial superiority must be part of the answer, but I am tempted also to refer to Keith Thomas’s The Ends of Life, in which he describes the extraordinary prickliness of 17th-century Englishmen at home, their trigger-happy sense of honour, their readiness to punish any hint of ‘insolence’ and to ‘demand satisfaction’. This is described as a characteristic of ‘early modern’ English society. Not for the first time, I am inclined to question the usefulness of this term, which seems to build into the historian’s approach an impatient looking-forward, a proleptic tilt. To me, this kind of honour-paranoia sounds more ‘late medieval’. You could even hazard that the imperial thrust is not so much a modern movement but a throwback, given fresh impetus by modern gunnery and financial muscle.


Wilson does well in this fascinating survey of the whole Indian excursion to point up its insecure, improvised, often chaotic nature. The British possessed certain advantages; not so much better weapons, at least in the early years, for Maratha armoury was formidable, but strong unified leadership and the ability to mobilise cash for long enough periods to see a campaign through. The colonial wars were won not on the playing fields of anywhere but in the counting houses of the City.

But there was never a moment when it was safe to relax. The so-called ‘Golden Calm’ between the end of the Maratha Wars and 1857 was largely illusory – we need only think of the disaster of the First Afghan War. The expense of these wars resulted in the recurrent collapses of banks in Calcutta, Bombay and London, bankrupting long-serving officers and forcing them to delay retirement or even to return to India to regain their fortunes, as Colonel Newcome does in Thackeray’s novel. After the Mutiny, the cost of doubling the size of the British army in India made calculating spirits like Walter Bagehot begin to wonder whether the whole caper was worth it. By the time Indian nationalists like Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Indian MP to sit at Westminster, were deploring ‘the drain of wealth’ to Britain, the drain had dwindled to a trickle of pensions and remittances to Cheltenham and Bournemouth. Ever since the Company lost its legal monopoly in 1833, trade had given way to state revenue as the prime reason for the Raj’s existence. It had become a tax machine, and not a very efficient one. Disraeli’s metaphor of ‘the jewel in the crown’ was more apt than he intended; the Raj was not unlike the Koh-i-Noor, glittering and purposeless. By this point, far from being a systematic form of power driven by coherent ideas, Wilson argues, ‘the logic of empire was circular; the purpose of imperial power was to do nothing more than maintain imperial power.’

There are a few slips in India Conquered: the Brighton Pavilion was not built by Prince Albert; the viceroy who was Lady Dorothy Macmillan’s grandfather and whose portrait gazed down on Harold Macmillan was Lansdowne, not Dufferin. But in general, Wilson’s thesis stands up to examination, not least to the self-examination of the collectors who sweltered through the hot season extracting the rupees and pagodas (the charmingly named currency of South India) to sustain them and their masters and shore up the Company’s credit at home, and who were tempted surprisingly often to wonder what it was all ultimately for.

Yet this is not quite the whole story. Tharoor mentions, if mostly to dismiss, the argument advanced by the late C.A. Bayly in his last book, Recovering Liberties: Indian Thought in the Age of Liberalism and Empire (2011), that ‘Britain helped liberalism take root in India by institutionalising it through schools and colleges, newspapers and colonial law courts, and thereby converted an entire generation of Indians to a way of thinking about their own future that led to today’s Indian democracy.’ But this is surely what did happen. There was indeed a long march through the institutions, and it was coaxed along by the colonial power. The leaders of the Congress Party might be alternately asked to tea at Viceregal Lodge and imprisoned for sedition, but the gradual process of Indianisation was seeping onwards. By the 1870s, the legal profession was dominated by Indians. By the 1890s, the teaching staff and governing bodies of the universities were predominantly Indian. Much earlier, in the 1820s and 1830s, vernacular newspapers had sprung up all over India. Fitful attempts to censor them did not last long. The trickle of Indians into the Indian civil service became a flood as they began to slaughter the English candidates in the competitive exams.

The disjunction between the despotism the British had been practising in India and the liberal, secular, democratic trends of their domestic politics was too embarrassing to endure indefinitely. They may not have willed the end; but they could not resist adopting the means. If they acquired the empire in ‘a fit of absence of mind’, they could be said to have lost it in much the same manner. Wilson rightly points out in his final pages what a modest impact the whole experience of the Raj had on British public opinion, how difficult it was to whip up sustained public enthusiasm for its glories, and how quickly the British came home after independence. They were consistent at least for three centuries in their reluctance to settle in the land they had conquered.

I am surprised, though, by Wilson’s urge to underplay the horrors of Partition. It was not, he says, an unparalleled moment of tragedy: ‘Given the scale of social and political collapse, the violence which occurred in 1947-48 should be seen neither as surprising nor unique. It could have been much worse.’ Mass migrations and mass murders were happening all over the world at the end of the war. He helps this underplaying along by offering a low estimate for the death toll: 150,000-500,000 as opposed to the high end of two million or so. When he has been so keen to emphasise the role of violence throughout the Raj, it seems odd to minimise the worst of all outbreaks at the end of it. Comparisons with the bloodshed on other continents which had been ravaged by war are not really apposite. With the terrible exception of the Bengal famine, India wasn’t much touched by World War Two. And the British could have done more to stem the violence, as they could have done to remedy the famine. After all, Gandhi more or less single-handedly brought the rioting to an end in Calcutta and then Delhi, and then by his final fast generated a peace agreement. It is hard not to conclude that the Raj ended in the worst failure of its whole existence. And we might as well admit it.