Empire as a Way of Life

Empire as a Way of Life

Two new histories of British imperial rule in India take the narrow view. In fact, the scandal of empire can be isolated neither to Europe nor to the past.


There are, as Eric Hobsbawm has written, “winners of history,” peoples, groupings and cadres of writers and scholars who manage to obtain widespread acceptance of their particular versions of the past. Such victories are sometimes permanent. The mainly white settlers and soldiers who swept across the American West in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for instance, substantially obliterated not only multitudes of Native Americans but also these peoples’ perspectives on what was happening in their continent. Empires that unravel and nations in decline, however, usually find that their specific historiographies start coming under pressure as well. At the beginning of the twentieth century Theodore Roosevelt, that avid American imperialist, wrote that the British had done some “marvelous things” in their Indian empire, and most (though not all) Britons at that time, and many Indians (including Gandhi and Nehru), would have concurred. But since World War II, and the onset of decolonization and relentless European retreat, assessments of British imperialism in the subcontinent as elsewhere have become, rightly, far more searching, and more critical.

Among historians, this revisionism has taken many forms, but the most programmatic assault has come from postcolonialists. These form a broad and complex church, but most postcolonial scholars agree that the formerly colonized world possesses historical reasons to resent what happened to it; that various modes of reparation are due; and that although formal colonization has ceased, many malign consequences of it persist. Postcolonialists detect empire’s legacy–or rather the legacy of the British and other European empires–not just in the racial divisions and in much of the economic inequities of the present but also in the knowledge traditionally purveyed by the Western academy. Consequently, they are deliberately and self-consciously iconoclastic. Balance is a “conceit,” Nicholas Dirks insists in his new book, The Scandal of Empire. Since empire is “always a scandal,” a practice no better than Fascism or slavery, there can and should be no balance in smiting the imperialist bias lurking in familiar accounts of the past as in so much else.

Dirks, a professor at Columbia University, is an anthropologist as well as a historian who has written several important books on southern India. Here, though, he focuses mainly on eighteenth-century Britain and on one of its most dramatic political controversies, the impeachment and trial of Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of Bengal from 1774 to 1784. As Dirks concedes, this has been “much written about,” but he tells the story passionately and with great intelligence. In 1765, after a series of military victories over indigenous and French armies, the East India Company, a private paramilitary trading company linked with but independent of the British state, secured from the Mughal emperor diwani rights–the power to raise revenue and administer justice–over Bengal. This led to an outburst of ferocious plundering and blundering, as the Company’s 250-odd civilian officials sought simultaneously to learn how to govern a vast, rich, well-populated province and to enrich themselves from private trade, corruption and armed extortion. By the 1770s accounts of these gross abuses were circulating widely in Britain and attracting Parliament’s attention; but it was the loss of the thirteen American colonies that really concentrated minds, and in particular the remarkable mind and rhetoric of Edmund Burke.

As Dirks remarks, Burke’s target appeared superficially a strange one. Hastings was not notably corrupt. He was “a man of great intellect and sensitivity,” eager to bring the Company’s officials under much closer control, fluent in Urdu, deeply interested in Indo-Muslim culture, possessed of many indigenous friends and assistants, and much concerned that Bengal’s inhabitants be governed in accordance with Hindu and Muslim traditions. None of this counted with Burke. Hastings was “the first man in rank, authority and station” and therefore ex officio “the captain-general in iniquity,” and Burke urged his impeachment “in the name of Indian Millions, whom he has sacrificed to injustice.”

Hastings’s trial before the House of Lords began a year after his impeachment in 1787, and dragged on until 1795. Although he was acquitted, the ordeal left him a ruined man, and his reputation as a founder of “British India” did not recover until the Victorian era. However, argues Dirks, although Burke raged against “geographical morality” and urged the British upper house “to respect a people as respectable as yourself,” and although the trial paraded the Company’s excesses and evils, and seemed to establish a precedent that even the most powerful Britons overseas were answerable for injustice, its cumulative effect was to enhance imperial aggression, not to call it into question. Obloquy was focused on individuals, not empire itself. Indeed, rather like the abolition of Britain’s participation in the slave trade in 1807, Hastings’s trial tended to burnish imperialism’s reputation by suggesting that politicians in London viewed their overseas subjects as “a sacred responsibility.”

Much of this is correct, if not particularly novel. That the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were an era both of strident and complacent British nationalism and unparalleled imperial aggression is well known. It is the global context of all this that Dirks overlooks. This same period also witnessed newly independent Americans seizing more Western territory than had been occupied during the entire colonial period. It saw Russia expanding rapidly eastward, swallowing up places like Georgia; China consolidating its massive territorial gains of the eighteenth century in regions like East Turkestan (modern-day Xinjiang); and Napoleon building up a continental empire that contained at its height 40 percent of all Europeans. Since Britain possessed a paramount navy, the maritime empire that it greedily accumulated at this time was exceptionally far-flung (and therefore always potentially vulnerable). But the British scarcely needed the Hastings trial to turn them on to empire. One of the oldest, most recurrent forms of political organization in global history, empire was markedly in fashion at the turn of the eighteenth century. Moreover, and contrary to what Dirks implies, neither at this stage nor at any other stage was empire fashionable only among Europeans.

Insofar as the British imperial elite felt compelled to legitimize their actions, most of them looked less to episodes of their own recent history than to the global past: to the great Muslim empires like those of the Ottomans and Mughals, to other once-powerful European empires, like that of Spain, and most of all perhaps to the many accounts of empire contained in the Greek and Roman classics. David Gilmour’s The Ruling Caste is a learned, thoughtful and beautifully written attempt to unpack the minds as well as the actions of some of these British imperial actors, the members of the Indian Civil Service (the ICS). There were just over 1,000 of them at Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, presiding over the administration of more than 300 million people scattered over what is now India, Burma, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The ICS was a small, exclusive group in another respect: Its members came disproportionately from a select number of middle-class British and Irish families who over the decades sent son after son to work in the subcontinent. At one point, there were five Lawrence brothers working there. Thirteen members of the Strachey family (of Lytton Strachey fame) went to India over four generations, and no fewer than thirty members of the Loch family established careers there.

The ICS has remained relatively immune from post-independence assaults on the British imperial record. After 1947 both Pakistan and India modeled their respective independent civil services on it; and only last year India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, after attacking the Raj’s economic exploitation, went on to insist nonetheless that “our judiciary, our legal system, our bureaucracy and our police are all great institutions, derived from British-Indian administration, and they have served our country exceedingly well.” Gilmour’s perspective on the institution he describes is scarcely a detached one. His book relies overwhelmingly on more than a hundred manuscript collections of onetime ICS men, but he is careful to scrutinize their record and to stress their and their arena’s considerable diversity.

This is important because “British” India is sometimes treated whiggishly as a unit, as a nation irrevocably in waiting. Dirks goes so far as to criticize Edmund Burke for having an insufficiently developed “sense of Indian…nationhood.” Yet even a century after Burke’s death, many leaders of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities in the subcontinent remained insistent on their respective, necessary separateness. The British invaders, too, are often stereotyped as an unattractive monolith, usually an English one, even though as Gilmour points out, individuals from the so-called Celtic fringe (Scotland, Wales and Ireland) could be as drawn to imperial ideas and adventures as anyone else. In the 1890s Irishmen headed seven of the eight large Indian provinces. Being Irish could make it easier for individuals to identify with colonized non-Europeans. It is possible that Burke’s sympathy with oppressed Bengalis, for instance, owed something to his mother’s being an Irish Catholic, and consequently disadvantaged in a fiercely Protestant kingdom. But this kind of thinking was not automatic. As Gilmour remarks, a follower of Charles Stewart Parnell, the champion of Irish home rule in the late nineteenth century, “could talk about the ‘great and noble Empire’ in the same speech in which he denounced the ‘unjust and tyrannous system of government in Ireland.'”

And ICS men behaved differently because of where they worked, not just because of where they came from. In Burma many of them married indigenous women, something their counterparts in India rarely did after 1830. If an ICS man served in one of the 680 princely states, quasi-autonomous polities containing more than 60 million of the subcontinent’s peoples, his prime task was to establish a rapport with the local ruler, often on the sports field. If, however, he was “district officer” of one of the 250 districts under British direct rule, which were each on average 4,000 square miles in size, an ICS man’s life was largely given over to conducting inspections on horseback–of local canals, road-building, railways, famine provision, legal business, sanitary arrangements, female education, forest maintenance, riot control, etc.–although he was rarely on his own. The success of the British administrative system was always heavily dependent on “hundreds of thousands” of Indian auxiliaries who dominated the lower and middle, though not the upper, ranks of the service. Even in 1910, a mere six of every 100 ICS men were Indians.

Gilmour is impatient with the idea “that colonial rule was always evil and colonialist motives were invariably bad,” and he believes that the majority of ICS men were paternalists rather than racists convinced of the innate inferiority of the millions they were governing. Still, he acknowledges that the ICS’s record was fraught with all sorts of contradictions. After 1853 the British were at one level genuinely eager to recruit highly qualified Indians for the ICS, and they changed the rules accordingly. But they were unwilling to transfer the entrance exams for the service from London to locations in the subcontinent because Indian teenagers were thought “infinitely quicker” at such tests than Europeans. The system was to be open to indigenous merit, but not too much, because the British remained divided over whether their long-term aim was to “educate” India’s peoples for independence (some British ICS men became Indian nationalists) or to maintain the Raj as long as possible. The reforms and improvements the service implemented were also uneven. By the early twentieth century, India possessed the largest irrigation system in the world and 25,000 miles of railroads. By contrast, mass literacy remained very low, while hunger was sometimes extreme. In the savage famine of 1900, ICS men mobilized relief for 5 million people; but in 1865, 1 million people starved in Orissa, in part because British officials there remained wedded to strict notions of political economy.

This kind of balance-sheet approach to particular empires in particular places–awarding a plus here, a minus there–is common, yet it does not get one very far. To begin with, imperial actions and events lend themselves to many different interpretations. For Gilmour the ICS’s campaign against female infanticide in northern India was self-evidently a good thing. For Dirks such initiatives were designed to advertise the superiority of the imperialists’ civilization and thus to legitimize their rule. In fact, both analyses carry weight. In addition, debating whether empire is/was good or bad raises the obvious questions: Which bits of empire are we talking about, and good or bad for whom exactly? One of the limitations of Gilmour’s book is that it does not address significantly how those on the receiving end viewed the ICS men’s endeavors. It conveys brilliantly and vividly the strange quality of these individuals’ lives: their incessant hard work, their loneliness, the problems of their wives, the challenges of sickness and heat in a world without antibiotics or air-conditioning, the moments of heady idealism and exhilaration at doing “government on a rather grand scale” and, on the other hand, the hardships that many of these men experienced in India and the incomprehension they encountered back home. But indigenous perspectives on the ICS are rarely excavated.

The biggest need for Gilmour, as with Dirks, is a far wider context. If ever there was an argument for the utility of global comparative history, it is empire. How much may be gained from such an approach is suggested, for instance, by Charles S. Maier’s recent study Among Empires: American Ascendancy and its Predecessors. As he argues in this brilliant series of reflections, properly analyzing empire demands a wide lens (“To write about having an empire is to ask about world politics”) and a recognition that this kind of expansion of rule has taken different forms, while also possessing certain characteristic features:

Empire is a form of political organization in which the social elements that rule in the dominant state…create a network of allied elites in regions abroad who accept subordination in international affairs in return for the security of their position in their own administrative unit…. Some colonies are remote and overseas, some are spatially contiguous to the core territory.

The British could never have established themselves in India without the decline of the Mughal empire or the active support of certain indigenous elites and interests. They could not have dominated the subcontinent in the nineteenth century if the Napoleonic empire had triumphed or if the United States, Russia and China had not been preoccupied with creating and maintaining their respective overland empires; and the fall of British India, and of other European colonies in the twentieth century, was due not simply to indigenous nationalism but also to the emergence of American global hegemony. It follows that the tendency to approach empire as a peculiarly European psychosis, occurring only in particular centuries in the past, is misleading. Empire cannot be compared to Fascism (a mode of politics confined to some decades in the twentieth century) or to slavery (a practice that most, alas not all, people have disavowed). Far better analogies are war or religious zealotry. Exactly like them, empire–the direct or indirect invasion of another people’s sovereignty–has often proved fearfully disruptive and violent. But like them, too, empire has been ubiquitous, multi-stranded and recurrent, and is far from being over.

Consequently, it is not simply for scholarly reasons that a broader, more comparative understanding of empire is desirable. It is necessary in order better to comprehend the present, not least (though not only) in the United States. One of the drawbacks of–indeed, one of the reasons for–the popularity in this country of postcolonial analysis, for all its undoubted achievements, is that it tends to encourage a kind of displacement activity. Consciously or not, interest in and anxiety and guilt about America’s past overland expansion and current global pre-eminence are projected onto the imperial past of Europe, a continent that has traditionally served as the American “other.” The Scandal of Empire illustrates this beautifully; Dirks makes clear that he decided to write about the Hastings impeachment partly in response to the attempted impeachment of President Clinton and the Iraq War. Instead of such an indirect way of going about things, might it not be useful if, as well as focusing on past European imperial exertions and iniquities, American academics began devoting rather more time to teaching, writing on and taking seriously US imperial history?

But the need for a broad, eclectic and inquiring vision in regard to empire goes far beyond the United States and Europe. Some decades ago, Reinhold Niebuhr coined the term “imperial nation” for polities that had been constituted in the past by imperial exertions and still behaved in some respects in an imperial manner. Without exception, all of today’s great powers–not only the United States but also India, China and post-Soviet Russia–are imperial nations in this sense, as Sikh, Kashmiri, Tibetan and Chechen nationalists would be the first to argue. Last year, Beijing and New Delhi signed a significant compact. The former undertook to recognize India’s rights over Sikkim, a onetime independent principality annexed by India in 1975; the latter agreed to accept Chinese control over Tibet. This was an agreement between Asia’s two most powerful nations. But it was also an illustration of how modes of empire are still with us and continue to take new, insidious and influential forms.

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