India Conquered: Britain’s Raj and the Chaos of Empire by Jon Wilson - review by David Gilmour

David Gilmour

Colonial Conundrums

India Conquered: Britain’s Raj and the Chaos of Empire


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Favourable judgements on the British Raj are in short supply nowadays. We have come a long way from the time when Bismarck was predicting that Britain’s work in India would be ‘one of its lasting monuments’ and Teddy Roosevelt was praising the British for doing ‘such marvellous things’ that they would transform the subcontinent as thoroughly as Rome had transformed Western Europe. Even conservative historians now only hesitantly suggest that possibly or ‘on the whole’ British rule might have had some benefits, that it established the rule of law and preserved religious freedoms, and that it bequeathed a fine civil service and set India on the road to constitutional government.

No such hesitation has affected critics of the Raj, whose works of disparagement still proliferate in India and the West. The British came, they conquered, they looted and then they continued conquering until they dominated the whole of the subcontinent and ruled it through officials who were brutal, unfeeling and contemptuous of Indians. This stereotyped view of the British in India was reinforced – to attract American audiences – by Richard Attenborough in his film Gandhi and, perhaps unwittingly (he was only following E M Forster), by David Lean in his film adaptation of A Passage to India. It gets a fresh airing in this book by Jon Wilson, a historian who is also a writer for the Fabian Society and an active member of the British Labour Party.

India Conquered is in many ways an original and interesting work. Although it covers the period of the East India Company and the Raj, it is a history of India rather than of British India. Among its merits is that the British do not hog the limelight; they are just one of several teams of players, and sometimes they are beaten by their opponents. Instead of familiar accounts of heroic battles – Clive at Plassey, Wellesley at Assaye – we are told with some relish about British defeats and a ‘particularly impressive victory’ for the Indians, though we are not given details of this encounter. Wilson understands the complexities of India, illuminating the cultures of the courts, the rivalries of the Marathas, the emergence and destinies of Pindari gangs of peasant-warriors. He is less enlightening – and certainly less charitable – about the imperialists.

Most historians of the Raj more or less skip the 17th century, when the British populations of Madras and Bombay could be counted in scores rather than hundreds, and gallop on to the 1740s, when Anglo-French rivalry got going in the south. Wilson does not skim over this period. He writes about the English, who ‘feature first in this story as pirates and insurgents’, and their almost unheard-of invasion fleets of the 1680s. These tiny groups of men, sent out by the East India Company to trade, quickly showed that they preferred violence to negotiation, an attitude the Company allowed to grow stronger over the next two and a half centuries. They built endless forts and before long acquired a ‘passion for conquest’ and the habitual use of violence. According to Wilson, their ‘capacity for violence’ was inherent and apparently limitless. Even ‘“Peace” in British India was a violent enterprise’.

Yet violence, Wilson argues, produced not a stable or self-confident empire but only a shaky and fragile regime, its administrators permanently anxious and paranoiac about the danger of native insurrection. Pax Britannica was always a delusion, as indeed was British power itself. British India was ‘ruled by doubt and anxiety from beginning to end’.

After the rebellion of 1857–8 the nature of British power altered. It was no longer ‘based … on violence against people’, and asserted itself instead through paper-logged bureaucracy and the construction of dams and railways, ‘proving the strength of the Raj by manipulating stone and iron’. Yet we are by no means finished with violence. Britain remained a ‘distant, violent state’, creating chaos in India until its rule eventually ended in 1947 in ‘a final phase of famine and violence’. The author uses the words ‘violence’, ‘violent’ and ‘violently’ so relentlessly that one can only regret that his editor did not lend him a thesaurus or search for some synonyms on his behalf. Surely it is easier to identify the army and police by their natural nouns rather than refer to them as the ‘British forces of violence’?

In any case, were these ‘forces’ always so violent? In 1902 there were fewer than 70,000 British soldiers among an Indian population of nearly 300 million, a ratio, that is, of one to about 4,300. Most of these men, moreover, were stationed in the north-west, in Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province. As a result, many Indians in the south who did not live in Madras or Bangalore might never have seen a British soldier in their lives. The notion that these villagers were being perennially cowed by systematic violence is simply wrong.

Early in his book Wilson declares that ‘Britons in India were rarely interested in the people among whom they lived’. This may well have been true of many, especially the wives of soldiers and officials who had not themselves chosen to spend their lives on the subcontinent. They could, of course, be distant and aloof, preferring to live in cantonments, hill stations and civil lines, and refusing, as the author points out, ‘to live among the people they ruled’. There is also some truth in his picture of a regime ‘suspended above the lives of its subjects, able to sustain itself while having only the thinnest connection with the people it was supposed to rule’. Yet Wilson damages his argument by his insistence on generalisation: the British thought this or felt that or wanted something else ‘almost to a man’. It is too facile to lump the district officer with the adjutant, the indigo planter with the irrigation engineer. And far too many Britons became linguists, historians and other scholars of India to justify the description ‘rarely interested’.

There is predictably little room in this narrative for the concept of altruism. Wilson grudgingly admits that, in times of famine, the British tried ‘to ensure the very poorest did not die in large numbers’. But that is about as far as he is prepared to go. He does not recognise the civil servants who died on famine duty, the doctors who combated cholera or the nurses who volunteered to work (and die) in the plague districts. People such as these do not suit his thesis that British officials were obsessed ‘only with their own position and security’, a view repeated in the final paragraph of the book: ‘They were interested merely in defending themselves and maintaining the trappings of authority.’

A few years ago The Hindu newspaper carried an article about a Victorian civil servant, Sir Vere Henry Levinge from Westmeath, who is commemorated not only by a Celtic cross in the south Indian hill station of Kodaikanal but also by a village in the vicinity called Levingepuram and by a little temple dedicated to him nearby at Vellakavi. His popularity in the area was such that, although he died in 1885, Indian boys were still being named Levingedurai in 2012. It is a strange story that does not explain what the baronet did to deserve all this, but I would guess that he is not being remembered either for his violence or for his lack of interest in Indians.

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