The Empire Under Siege

In 1857, the eighth Earl of Elgin was on his way to punish the Manchu rulers of China for daring to close the city of Canton to British opium traders when he heard about the Indian Mutiny. The anti-British insurrections were confined to North India, especially the Gangetic Plain, from where most of the mutinous sepoys, or Indian soldiers, of the British East India Company had been recruited. But they threatened to undo all that the British had gained in India in the previous hundred years. Elgin immediately diverted his punitive expedition to India and spent a few anxious weeks in Calcutta, waiting for news of British victories, before moving on to deal with the Chinese.

Elgin was a reluctant imperialist. “I hate the whole thing so much that I cannot trust myself to write about it,” he wrote in his diary as British warships under his command bombarded and killed two hundred civilians in Canton. In Calcutta, living in a mansion modeled on Kedleston Hall in England, he wrote of the three or four hundred servants who surrounded him:

One moves among them with perfect indifference, treating them not as dogs, because in that case one would whistle to them and pat them, but as machines with which one can have no communion or sympathy…. When the passions of fear and hatred are grafted on this indifference, the result is frightful; an absolute callousness as to the sufferings of the objects of those passions….

As a police officer in Burma, forced to shoot an elephant he didn’t particularly want to shoot, George Orwell felt acutely the degradations colonialism imposed as much on the oppressor as on the oppressed. Trapped into roles and actions not of his choosing, even the reluctant imperialist, Orwell thought, “becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib…. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.”

But the outraged feelings of a few people do not disturb much the impersonal business of modern empires. A range of influential men in Britain—Edmund Burke as well as John Stuart Mill—spoke up for the victims of the East India Company. But they had little impact on the real rulers of India, whom Burke denounced as “young men (boys almost)” who rule “without sympathy with the natives,” the “birds of prey” who make their fortune before either “Nature [or] reason have any opportunity to exert themselves for remedy of the excesses of their premature power.”

In the decades before the mutiny, these officials of the East India Company had radically disrupted India’s old social and economic order. They had forced skilled artisans and craftsmen to become petty commodity producers while turning India from an exporter of high-quality luxury items into a supplier of raw materials for the Industrial Revolution in England. Their extortionate demands for agricultural revenue had forced an older class of landholders and peasants into debt and destitution.

Confronted with Belgian rapacity and destructiveness in the Congo, the…

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