Inevitably we judge the past by the present, and the more recent the past the more harshly we judge. Britain’s Indian empire is a case in point. An institution that was wound up over half a century ago continues to be an object of vituperation in many quarters, not because it was high on the scale of misgovernment or displaced better local government but because it is still remembered at first- and second-generation level as an essentially racist institution that sought to impose its own culture on others. It helps, of course, when an empire keeps records, and in the case of the British empire these records are extensive, accessible and often self-critical. They allow historians to draw conclusions that approach objectivity and, in the case of British India, to conclude that its greatest crime was not being beastly to the natives but economic despoliation: Britain’s systematic dismantling of the local economy to benefit its own.
When it comes to earlier empires, making judgements becomes infinitely more complicated. Mughal rule in India – beginning with Babur’s triumph at the killing fields of Panipat in 1526 and ending with the deposition of the drug-befuddled Bahadur Shah II by the British in 1857 – lasted twice as long