E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India ends with a poignant exchange between Aziz, a young Muslim doctor, and Fielding, a Briton sympathetic to Indians. Though Aziz is acquitted of the false charge of molesting a British woman, he is deeply wounded by the experience and wants nothing to do with the colonial race. Fielding, an old friend, seeks him out and asks why they cannot be friends again.
But the horses didn’t want it–they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices. “No, not yet,” and the sky said, “No, not there.”
This is how the novel ended, written in 1924 against the backdrop of the first mass nationalist upsurge against British rule. Gandhi, who led the movement, was a product of the Indian encounter with Western culture. He trained as a barrister in London and spent more than two decades in South Africa, developing his doctrine of nonviolent struggle in campaigning for Indian rights. Western ideas deeply influenced his political philosophy, and he maintained lifelong friendships with a number of Europeans. But anticolonialism formed the bedrock of his relationship with the West. Despite good intentions, there could be no friendship in the abstract. You could not simply wish away empire when it formed the setting in which the members of colonizing and colonized cultures met.
Historians of empire have always understood this chasm in human relationships created by the fact of one culture ruling over another. But a reappraisal of this truth has been under way for some time now at the hands of revisionist historians of the British Empire. These historians dislike Edward Said and the postcolonial critics who cite French theory and argue that the British Empire established lasting Orient/Occident and East/West oppositions in politics and knowledge. Uncomfortable with the political passion and theoretical language of these critics, the revisionists counsel us (in mainly British accents, with some American intonations) to lower the anti-imperial temperature and write old-fashioned narrative history. They contend that empire is the oldest and one of the most widely practiced forms of governance.
The Romans did it, the Spaniards did it, the Russians did it, the Chinese did it, even the newly independent nations have done it. Everybody oppressed everyone else. Pax Britannica may have ruled over one-fifth of humanity, but the conquerors, soldiers, administrators and scholars were also human. Why bring in such abstractions as Orientalism and colonialism? Underneath it all, the story of the British Empire is a narrative of individuals caught up in human encounters between cultures.
True, the revisionist argument continues, Britons went to distant lands to profit and conquer. But vastly outnumbered by the local population and pitted against powerful adversaries, they were deeply conscious of their vulnerability. This was particularly true in the eighteenth century, when the British were all too aware of the power and grandeur of the Ottomans and the Mughals. The Barbary corsairs and Algerian slave owners harassed them in the Mediterranean, the Indian tribes challenged them in North America and the French engaged them in imperial wars. Then, their American territories fell. On the Indian subcontinent, the Mughal Empire was reduced to a shell, but successor states posed a serious challenge to the East India Company’s military position. Embattled, the British were forced to depend on indigenous allies and could not afford to treat native populations and cultures as inferior. Forcibly or willingly, many crossed cultural borders. They shed European trousers for native pajamas, grew Hindu mustaches and Muslim beards, married local women and kept concubines, and collected indigenous texts and artifacts. A human story of interest and immersion in other cultures, languages and artifacts–not mastery–underpinned British imperial expansion.