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.”