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Plain Tales from British India

Exactly 150 years ago, on September 14, 1857, at the height of the Great Uprising against the British in India, British forces attacked Delhi. They entered the besieged city through a breach in the walls near the Kashmiri Gate. Then they proceeded to massacre not just the combatants that were ranged against them—their own rebellious infantrymen (or sepoys), supported by freelance Muslim jihadis armed with battle-axes—but also the ordinary defenseless citizens of the old Mughal capital. In one muhalla (neighborhood) alone, Kucha Chelan, some 1,400 unarmed citizens of Delhi were cut down. “The orders went out to shoot every soul,” recorded Edward Vibart:

It was literally murder…. I have seen many bloody and awful sights lately but such as I witnessed yesterday I pray I never see again. The women were all spared but their screams, on seeing their husbands and sons butchered, were most painful…. Heaven knows I feel no pity, but when some old grey bearded man is brought and shot before your very eyes, hard must be that heart that can look on with indifference….

Those city dwellers who survived the killing were driven out into the countryside to fend for themselves. Delhi, a sophisticated city of maybe half a million souls, was left an empty ruin. Though the Mughal imperial family had surrendered peacefully, most of the Emperor’s sixteen sons were tried and hanged, while three were shot in cold blood, having first given up their arms, then been told to strip and hand over their jewels: “In 24 hours I disposed of the principal members of the house of Timur the Tartar,” Captain William Hodson wrote to his sister. “I am not cruel, but I confess I did enjoy the opportunity of ridding the earth of these wretches.”

The father of the princes was the Emperor Bahadur Shah II, known by his pen name, Zafar. Zafar was the last Mughal emperor, and the direct descendant of Genghis Khan and Timur, of Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan. He was born in 1775, when the British were still a relatively modest power in India, looking inward from three enclaves on the Indian shore. In his lifetime he had seen his own dynasty reduced to insignificance, while the East India Company transformed itself from a group of vulnerable traders into an aggressively expansionist military force. Captured soon after the fall of Delhi, Zafar was put on trial in his own palace and prosecuted as a rebel and traitor—despite the fact that the company had long acknowledged, even on its own seal, its legal status as the Emperor’s vassal. The court sentenced him to be banished to Burma. There he died and was buried in an unmarked grave. The Emperor, a noted poet, lamented in one of his last lyrics:

My life now gives no ray of light,
I bring no solace to heart or eye;
Out of dust to dust again,
Of no use to anyone am I.
Delhi was once a paradise,
Where Love held sway and reigned;
But its charm lies ravished now
And only ruins remain.

The violent suppression of the Great Uprising of 1857—the largest anticolonial revolt against any European empire anywhere in the world in the entire course of the nineteenth century—was a pivotal moment in the history of British imperialism in India. It marked the end of both the East India Company and the Mughal dynasty, the two principal forces that had shaped Indian history over the previous three hundred years, and replaced both with undisguised imperial rule by the British government.

Not long after Zafar’s lifeless corpse had been tipped into its anonymous Burmese grave, Queen Victoria accepted the title “Empress of India” from Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, initiating a very different period of direct imperial rule.

The year 1857 can usefully be taken to mark an important frontier in the changing nature of British rule. Before the uprising, and especially in its eighteenth-century heyday, the East India Company—a multinational trading corporation dedicated to the pursuit of its shareholders’ profits—was intermittently a corrupt, aggressive, and rapacious force, which impoverished once-prosperous Indian provinces and destroyed indigenous industries, arts, and institutions.

Most terrible of all was the plunder of Bengal following its conquest by the British in 1757. The British commander Robert Clive returned to Britain with the huge fortune of £300,000, making him one of the richest self-made men in Europe; after one single battle—Plassey—he transferred to the company treasury no less than £2.5 million that he had seized from the defeated nawab of Bengal. The conquered province was left devastated by war and high taxation, and stricken by the famine of 1769. Its wealth rapidly drained into British bank accounts, while its prosperous weavers and artisans were coerced “like so many slaves” by their new British masters, and the markets were flooded with British products. As the contemporary historian Alexander Dow put it:

At that time, Bengal was one of the richest, most populous and best cultivated kingdoms in the world…. We may date the commencement of decline from the day on which Bengal fell under the dominion of foreigners.1

On the other hand, the rule of the East India Company was also marked, especially in the first two centuries from 1600 to 1800, by a surprising degree of interaction between the colonized and the colonizer—ranging from ties of business and finance, political alliances, and collaboration to friendships, love affairs, and not infrequently marriage. It was not just that Indian moneylenders and ambitious courtiers allied themselves with the rising power of the company; during the eighteenth century, it was almost as common for Westerners to take on the customs and even the religions of India as the reverse. Contrary to stereotype, a surprising number of company men responded to India by slowly shedding their Britishness like an unwanted skin and adopting Indian dress and taking on the ways of the Mughal governing class they came to replace—what Salman Rushdie has called “chutnification.”

These White Mughals were far from an insignificant minority: between 1780 and 1785, the wills of company officials show that one in three were leaving everything to Indian wives, often accompanied by moving declarations of love—asking their close friends to care for their “well beloved” Indian partners, or as one put it, “the excellent and respectable Mother of my two children for whom I feel unbounded love and affection and esteem.” Family portraits from the period are remarkable for the ease with which two races and religions cohabit, with British men dressed in turbans and kurta pajamas, while their Indian wives sit in the European manner on European furniture.

One official, the Boston-born Sir David Ochterlony, who every evening used to take all thirteen of his Indian consorts around Delhi, each on the back of her own elephant, went so far as to build a Mughal garden tomb for himself and his chief wife, where the central dome was topped by a cross and flanked by a forest of minarets. A note from Ochterlony gives a measure of the surprisingly multireligious tone of this period: “Lady Ochterlony,” he reported to Calcutta, “has applied for leave to make the Hadge to Mecca.”

In contrast, during the later half of British rule that followed the suppression of the Uprising of 1857, especially during the high Raj of the late nineteenth century, there was almost complete apartheid, an almost religious belief in racial differences, and little friendship or marriage across strictly policed racial and religious boundaries. But the Victorian administrators, unlike their eighteenth-century predecessors, were widely celebrated—even by freedom fighters such as Nehru and Gandhi—for their integrity and incorruptibility.

In the light of so much postcolonial disapproval, it is worth remembering the reputation Victorian rule in India once enjoyed, even from Britain’s fiercest critics. Theodore Roosevelt thought that Britain had done “such marvellous things in India” that they might “transform the Indian population…in government and culture, and thus leave [their] impress as Rome did hers on Europe.” While company men openly came to the East intent on making their fortune, the Victorian administrators saw themselves as part of an altruistic project, taking up the “sacred responsibility” to bring good government to the benighted heathen, what Lord Curzon characterized, without any apparent irony, as “the most unselfish page in history…. We found strife and we have created order.” Providence, he concluded, had sent Britain to India “for the lasting benefit of millions of the human race.”

Today, of course, this benevolent self-image of the Victorians is a subject of heavily contested and often bitter debate. Niall Ferguson’s deeply controversial—if impressively eloquent—celebration of the British Empire and what he sees as its central role in the spread of capitalism, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, was first published in 2003, the same year that the US went into Iraq. He did not hesitate to make explicit comparisons between the old British and the new American empires, and his industrious stream of books, Op-Eds, Foreign Affairs essays, and television documentaries encouraged the US to embrace empire, just as Kipling had urged America to take up the White Man’s Burden a century before.

Partly as a result of Ferguson’s work in so publicly and popularly commemorating what he saw as the joys of imperialism, over the past four years imperial historians have suddenly found their subject the center of frenzied debate. Academic discussions on Lawrence of Arabia’s views on Iraq, the revolt of the Mahdi in Khartoum, the British Mandate in Palestine, and the Wahhabi Uprisings of the North-West Frontier have all taken on an entirely new importance as perspectives changed in the light of recent horrors in Baghdad, Falluja, Darfur, Gaza, and Kabul. Postcolonial studies were always a heavily politicized and angrily polemical academic field, but after September 11 they became a central focus of protest against American foreign policy. Indeed events moved so fast that the very phrase “postcolonial” came to be redundant, as the cadaver of Western colonialism emerged shuddering from its shallow grave. The study of imperialism, in short, was suddenly about the present as much as the past.2

As anyone who has ever studied the story of the rise of the British in India will know well, there is nothing new about the neocons. The cynical old game of regime change—of installing puppet regimes propped up by the West for its own political and economic ends—is one that the British had perfected by the late eighteenth century. Sometimes the similarities are almost uncanny. By the end of the 1790s, the hard-liners who were calling for regime change found that they now had a president who was not prepared to wait to be attacked: he was a new sort of conservative, aggressive in foreign policy, bitterly anti-French, and intent on turning his country into the unrivaled global power. It was best, he believed, preemptively to remove hostile Muslim regimes that presumed to resist the West.

  1. 1

    The fullest account of the destruction of the Bengali economy by the British in the eighteenth century is probably Sushil Chaudhury’s From Prosperity to Decline: Eighteenth Century Bengal (New Delhi: Manohar, 1995). See also Nick Robins’s polemical but stimulating The Corporation that Changed the World: How the East India Company Shaped the Modern Multinational (Pluto, 2006). In contrast, Robert Travers and Tilottama Mukherjee show in their recent dissertations that textile and other exports grew, and large numbers of markets and new towns were created through to the 1790s, notably in Calcutta itself. They argue that the structural decline of Bengal really began when British industrialization had effects on the Indian economy after 1790 and when company servants ceased to remit their earnings home in the form of textiles and switched to indigo after about 1815. This makes the comparison with contemporary Iraq (where looting did in fact coincide with a precipitous actual decline) a little tenuous. The effects of British rule on the wider Indian Ocean have recently received a sophisticated analysis by Sugata Bose: A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire (Harvard University Press, 2006).

  2. 2

    Niall Ferguson himself has recently expressed doubts about the capacity of the US to sustain the imperial interventions he earlier supported.

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