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Surprises of the Empire

One of the eccentricities of the historical profession is its tradition of explaining very complicated events by means of very simple formulas. For decades historians tried to explain the French Revolution through the actions of monolithic classes—the “aristocracy,” the “bourgeoisie”—until Richard Cobb and a few other scholars suggested the events were easier to understand if you treated people as individuals rather than as members of a class (acting in unison), a crowd (rioting for the same motives), or, worst of all, a list of statistics.

Even more eccentric is the treatment of the British Empire. Stretching over three centuries and six continents, you might have expected that its extent, duration, and diversity would have made it immune to facile interpretation. Not at all. Indeed, while the interpretations themselves change, the facility seems almost permanent.

A hundred years ago, the history of the empire was widely seen as a steady march toward beneficent dominion, a gradual reddening of the schoolroom map from Canada in the top left corner to New Zealand in the bottom right, a progress that brought with it good government, order, prosperity, and (eventually) liberty to those fortunate enough to belong to the expanding red zones. Many of its subjects agreed with this view: in his autobiography even Gandhi admitted he had believed “the British Empire existed for the welfare of the world.”1 Guided by Providence and by Queen Victoria, Britain assumed extravagantly maternal roles. It (or she) was celebrated as “Mother of the Free” in “Land of Hope and Glory” and as “the mother of Parliaments” by the politician John Bright.

Even when atrocities against subject peoples had to be admitted—like Governor Edward Eyre’s repression of a rebellion in Jamaica in 1865 or Brigadier Reginald Dyer’s massacre of 379 unarmed civilians at Amritsar in 1919—the overall benefits were seldom questioned. You only had to compare the constitutional histories of enlightened Canada and benighted South America to understand the point.

A century later, the simplicities are on the other side. Many historians who call themselves “postcolonial” have taken it for granted that colonial rule was always evil and colonialist motives always bad. A reading of their work leaves the impression that the best of the colonialists was less worthy than the worst of the colonized, unless the latter was an ally of the imperial power, in which case he is dismissed as a “lackey” or “collaborator.” As Maya Jasanoff recalls in her scholarly and imaginative book Edge of Empire, most of the contemporary histories she read while writing “drew a detailed if rather insidious picture of white European colonizers trying to supplant, appropriate, or denigrate the non-European peoples and societies they encountered.”

Most postcolonial writing has no room for altruism. If the British were exploiters, how could they also be altruists? If there is evidence of benign motives—as there is in the letters and diaries of hundreds of civil servants who spent their careers in India—they are very seldom mentioned. Even if an altruistic policy cannot be ignored, it can be disparaged: it could be claimed, for example, that sati, the burning of Hindu widows, was not as widespread as the British said it was, that the abolition of satiby the British was carried out “with much self-aggrandizing fanfare” as one well-known anthropologist put it, and that in any case “moral outrage” was not “the predominant factor” in the decision to outlaw it.2 We have traveled far from the days of W.E.H. Lecky, the nineteenth-century historian who described the “unweary, unostentatious and inglorious” struggle for the abolition of slavery in Great Britain as one of the “three or four perfectly virtuous pages comprised in the history of nations.” But how far has our understanding advanced?

Contemporary historians compete with each other to find more extreme ways of expressing their opprobrium—frequently making comparisons between the British imperialists and the Nazis. “Who, after all,” says the historian Maria Misra in an article in the London Guardian, “invented the concentration camp but the British [in the Boer War]?”—a question that equally combines ignorance and tendentiousness.3 In fact, the term, first used by two Radical British MPs, is derived from the campos de reconcentracióninto which Spanish forces swept Cuban civilians in the war between 1895 and 1898. But neither in Cuba nor in South Africa, where Afrikaner families were herded into camps during the guerrilla stage of the Boer War, did they have anything in common with the extermination center at Auschwitz.

Of course there were Victorian and Edwardian writers who did not endorse the neo-Whig interpretation of imperial history as one of continuous progress. And there are many historians today who do not belong to the postcolonial school. Maya Jasanoff’s impressive book clearly owes much to historians such as Linda Colley, P.J. Marshall, and C.A. Bayly, three of the leading historians of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. She and other imperial historians also owe a considerable debt to William Roger Louis, the American editor of The Oxford History of the British Empire, and to the many contributors to its five volumes.4

Jasanoff, who teaches history at the University of Virginia, refuses to see Britain’s imperial history as a simple “saga of colonizers versus colonized” and laments that so “much academic energy has gone into tracing how ‘the West’ exerted and expressed its power over ‘the rest.’” She also declines to share the “postcolonialists’” view of the British Empire as “an insidious behemoth” and argues that historians should be wary of making moral judgments from afar. Denying she is an apologist for any empire, past or present, she points out that

empires are a fact of world history. The important question for this book is not whether they are “good” or “bad,” but what they do, whom they affect, and how.

One of the strengths of her work is her refusal to see anything in black and white. Empires tend to be inclusive, especially as they expand; their borders are porous, above all the cultural ones. “Imperialism is not a one-way street,” because the cultural traffic—among others—can run both ways. Europeans bought (and looted) from the East, but Indian merchants and princes established collections of Western art. As Jasanoff remarks,

It is easy to speak of a “clash of civilizations” when cultures are distilled to the point of abstraction. But real people in the real world do not necessarily experience other cultures in a confrontational or monolithic way.

The principal characters in Edge of Empire are imperial collectors of art, men who “reached across the lines of cultural difference.” In the first part of her book Jasanoff concentrates on Lucknow, the last great Islamic city of northern India. In 1775 it was made the capital of the region of Oudh by the new nawab, Asaf ud-Daula, an amiable young man who enjoyed most things in life except government. Living in a haze of wine and opium, he built palaces and mosques, sponsored poets and musicians as well as great banquets and cockfights. He possessed eight hundred elephants and a stable of a thousand horses, which he kept just for show because he was too fat to ride them.

Under Asaf ud-Daula, Lucknow incarnated the European fantasy of an Oriental fleshpot, corrupt and seductive, decadent and artistic, an exotic blend of palace and spice market, scholarship and sensuality. It was a place of opportunity, a place to make dreams come real. You could make money but you could also remake yourself, or at any rate create a different (or additional) self to the one you already had. Elizabeth Plowden, “the middle class wife of a middle-ranking Company soldier,” befriended Asaf ud-Daula and left Lucknow with the noble title begum. Jasanoff makes much of Lucknow as a place for people to reinvent themselves, a magnet for “border crossers,” a type of person the author is much attracted to. (The book is dedicated to Jasanoff’s “parents, border crossers.”)

Lucknow certainly attracted colorful adventurers. Jasanoff describes a group of Europeans who settled in the city, “went native,” made money, collected art, started families, established new identities—and had problems deciding what to do with their old age. Although Antoine Polier was born in Lausanne in the early eighteenth century, he joined the British East India Company and fought with Clive against the French in southern India. After the company decided that foreigners would be denied promotion beyond the rank of major, he abandoned the British for the service of the nawab of Oudh. During his fifteen years in Lucknow he acquired two Muslim wives, several children (with whom he corresponded in Persian), a considerable fortune, an immense collection of manuscripts, and the title and status of a Mughal aristocrat. The Emperor gave him the Persian name “Lion of Battle.”

Yet a part of him hankered after Europe and, after retiring to Switzerland with his manuscripts but without his wives and with only two of his children, he made the mistake of moving to France in the middle of the Revolution. It was an eccentric choice for the Swiss entrepreneur—as Jasanoff observes, the year 1792 was “a supremely bad time to buy a French chateau”—and things soon went horribly wrong. Polier’s opulent style of life attracted a gang of counterrevolutionary bandits who ransacked his home when he was out, ambushed his carriage on his return, denounced him as a “Robespierrist,” and finally murdered him in his cellar, which they had hoped to find full of Oriental treasure.

Benoît Leborgne, a friend of Polier, also decided to return to Europe. Another Alpine adventurer, this time from Savoy, Leborgne joined first the French army (changing his name to the more aristocratic-sounding de Boigne), then the Russian army (in which he was captured by the Turks), then the East India Company forces (in which he seems to have got bored), and finally the army of Mahadji Scindia, a leader of the Maratha people in western India. De Boigne also went to Lucknow, acquired money and a collection of weapons and artifacts, and married the daughter of a Persian general. Later, for health reasons, he moved to Europe with his family and belongings and chose London as his residence. But he was dispirited by his new home, and his unhappiness was increased by the loss of his artifacts in a shipwreck and also by his brief and miserable marriage to a young French aristocrat. De Boigne eventually returned by himself to his birthplace, Savoy, where he was made a count by its ruler, the King of Sardinia.

After learning of the fate of Polier and de Boigne, their friend Claude Martin decided not to follow them to Europe. Born in Lyon, the youthful Martin had enlisted in the French army, and deserted it while stationed in Pondicherry, the French enclave in India. He joined the British besiegers outside the town and became an ensign in the company’s forces. Like his friends, he took up residence in Lucknow and amassed a fortune and an art collection even larger than theirs; he bought from European dealers as well as from Indians. But although he had a local mistress, he did not “go native” like the others. At Pondicherry he decided he wanted to be British and in Lucknow he led the life of an English gentleman abroad, a connoisseur, scientist, banker, and philanthropist.

  1. 1

    M.K. Gandhi, An Autobiography (Penguin, 2001), p. 287.

  2. 2

    Wendy Doniger, “Why Did They Burn?,” Times Literary Supplement, September 14, 2001.

  3. 3

    Maria Misra, “Heart of Smugness,” The Guardian, July 23, 2002.

  4. 4

    Volumes 1 and 2 were reviewed in these pages by Conor Cruise O’Brien in “Buried Lives,” The New York Review, December 16, 1999.

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