Sep 122012

If anyone were to ask me whether the British Empire was a good thing or a bad thing, I would reply that this is not a good question. The British Empire was just ‘a thing’, a thing that happened. It was good for some people and bad for others. Opinions about its relative goodness or badness follow on.

One thing that can be said is that Indians need not feel much gratitude to the Empire, in the way that Niall Ferguson seems to think they should. Ferguson’s general thesis is that the British Empire made everyone, on average, better off, and spread liberal institutions across the globe to match. The latter part is true, in India at least, but the long-term economic effects of imperial rule on India have not been good, and certainly not good enough on balance to account the whole project a laudable success. Imperial rule is not fair by modern standards, and it is inappropriate to defend it with any vigour. The costs for whatever benefits one may care to select were very high.

What Britain did give India – and this is not something that an older generation of Indian nationalists liked to concede – was a structured political unity. Many to this day claim that India has always been one entity, and culturally this might be true, though it is hard to say much for sure about very ancient times, and more recently there has only ever been evidence to the contrary. Much on this subject has come from the nationalist Right, but on reading what they say it soon becomes apparent that their central argument is weak, and amounts to saying that India has always been united except in all the ways she hasn’t.

But not everyone on the patriotic Right has been strident about India’s unity. The impeccably nationalist, and much admired historian. R.C. Majumdar conceded that ‘the political unity of India’ was a British achievement, indeed their ‘greatest achievement’. Even Radha Kumud Mookerjee, author of The Fundamental Unity of India, the seminal work on the subject, remarks in the Introduction that: ‘No doubt, the greatest gift of British rule in India has been its political unification under a paramount power’ (p. 24).

But the issue of unity – which is sure to remain in play for the foreseeable future – is of course a stalking horse for much else.

Its most obvious use is to prove that all India’s ills were created by the British, which is what Congress politicians repeatedly said after about 1905. All the while a section of Hindu nationalists have been saying that all India’s ills were created by Muslims. What is at issue here is ultimately not what constitutes ‘unity’, but what constitutes ‘Indianness’. And that is highly subjective.

A more direct question remains: where and when were Indians ever united politically? One answer is, in opposition to the British. This is much more easily accepted. And, of course, such unity as the British brought either positively through institutions, or negatively by raising opposition, was only achieved by violence.

Paradoxically, empires bring peace and unity, at least for a while, but only by the use of well-funded, carefully directed violence.

 Posted by at 11:48 am

  5 Responses to “Manifesto 01: Empire”

  1. I agree Niall Ferguson’s Empire is a bit too triumphant in its tone though it is a very learned work. I recommend Unfinished Empire by John Darwin – an Oxford historian. The book released last year and has attracted very positive reviews. Darwin unlike Ferguson remains a neutral spectator and just narrates the making of the masala which the Empire was in reality – governed by numerous interests and ideologies. He refuses to make value judgments unlike Ferguson.

    I am a bit of an Anglophile and believe the Empire was on the whole a small positive (not very large). It is fashonable for historians to cite the decline in India’s share of world GDP between 1600 and 1947. But hang on, that tells us very little. It so happened that Europe (and especially Britain) underwent an extraordinary Industrial revolution in late 1700s-early 1800s unlike India or China. It isn’t Britain’s fault that India didn’t have a similar revolution. In fact we must all be grateful that the revolution did happen atleast in one part of the world, but for which our modern world would be still born.

    • Thank you, I will look up the Darwin book.

      Ferguson makes some very basic errors in his sections on India (Clive the victor of Baksar?) and that is always worrying – triumphal tone or not. Hasty writing, and that betrays carelessness. Add to this that essentially Ferguson is a polemicist for a certain type of liberal economics, and is also a brilliant controversialist. What he writes should be viewed in these three lights. He is writing for now, not for posterity, and for the sake of money, not for eternal verities.

      As for the world GDP thing, I address precisely this in the Conclusion to my next book. The relevant factor, as you point out, is mechanisation/per capita productivity.

      • RM : I agree about Ferguson’s writings being influenced by the prevailing ideological currents. Perhaps I don’t notice this influence as closely as I should given my admittedly conservative inclinations!

        The one area where Ferguson’s Empire illuminated my understanding was regarding Britain’s key role in getting slave trade abolished in 19th century. The history of Abolitionism focuses too much on the American Civil War and too little on the British Christian Right’s extraordinary influence in transforming the moral climate concerning slavery all around the world!

        • I’m not disputing everything Ferguson says, and I think he deserves respect as a writer and a thinker. I wasn’t trying to denigrate him, just to point out where he sits in the overall picture – as a right of centre economist, and a journalistic writer. I am no kind of socialist, so I agree with him about the general desirability of free market economics – while recognising that free trade always privileges the strong. It’s never the weak that call for it.

          He is very readable, but I think he rather skims over the weaknesses/controversial bits in his arguments. Not very balanced. I think it is difficult to make a case that India benefited very much from colonialism economically. Politically there may be some long term benefits, but the question is always of cost/benefit equations. Overall, imo he is not someone to read for history, but for free market polemics.

        • And I like your comment about the slavery issue. I have heard/read a lot of African/black nationalist output about this, and the Brits get a real roasting. They cant see that slavery was an economic phenomenon, abandoned because of economics, but with a heavy dose of righteousness that was slightly against British self interest. The equality agenda and the economic agenda sort of clashed on this one, and I think it is creditable to liberal 19c England that the equality agenda won out. Not many see it that way, so thank you for that.

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