June 24, 2021

British rule of the Indian subcontinent has been blamed for a lot: the rise of predatory capitalism, the centuries-long decline of South Asia into deep poverty with the concurrent industrialisation of England and, of course, the flowering of the ideology of white racial domination over non-white peoples.

Peace, Poverty and Betrayal: A New History of British India puts the kibosh on these assertions. In it, Roderick Matthews argues that there was no fixed plan, either in the inception of British India or the hasty exit; the vaunted connection between the British and Indian economies was marginal at best; and though the rise of racial supremacism was a feature of the cultural landscape of Victorian England, the colour hierarchy in India had roots prior to the 19th century, and was caught up in a roiling vortex of broader currents in the Western world.

Matthews, who has written extensively on British India, contends that while the jewel in the crown was a glittering signal to the world of British power, it did not make that power. And yet he presents little coherent explanation for these centuries when the decisions made by the British gave us the modern nation-states of India and Pakistan. Peace, Poverty and Betrayal would have us think that these were incidental, but even without a plan, the decisions made by India’s colonial overlords have shaped the lives of 25% of the world’s population.

In the realm of British-Indian historiography, the centuries between 1600 and 1947 are divided into three neat subunits. The East India Company’s (EIC) era of assimilationist age of “White Mughals”, to use William Dalrymple’s phrase, is followed by an evangelical Christian one, with the British Raj closing out a three-act tragedy. To Matthews, the overarching themes applied to justify these three eras can be forced and misleading, overly reductive. I take his point.

He kicks off the narrative conventionally enough in 1600, when the East Indian Company (EIC) was founded, and ends it in 1947, when the British Raj transferred power to the newly independent states of India and Pakistan. In Peace, Poverty and Betrayal, the EIC never transcends its 17th-century origins, when it was a tool of the British monarchy battling the Portuguese and Dutch on the high seas, skulking around the margins of the Mughal Empire to obtain minor trading concessions. Despite the later pomp and circumstance, Matthews argues persuasively that the EIC remained an institutionally weak organisation from its beginning to its very end.

The nature of the EIC for most of its history can be illustrated by the Child’s War of the 1680’s, when it first confronted the Great Mughal directly. The conflict did not go well for the EIC, and eventually a surrender was negotiated where the company’s envoys prostrated themselves before Emperor Aurangzeb and paid a substantial indemnity. It is easy to forget that for generations, British merchants and soldiers were almost beneath the notice of the rulers of India.

How, then, did the British become masters of the subcontinent by 1800? Well, Robert Clive conquered Bengal for the EIC at the Battle of Plassey in 1757. But again, this was not part of any plan. Clive looted what would today be billions of pounds, and was put on trial by Parliament for his actions. Clive’s protégé, Warren Hastings, was impeached by Parliament for extortion, embezzlement and committing judicial murder against a personal enemy. The fall of India to the EIC was a conspiracy of individual greed rather than a coordination of imperial power.

Clive and Hastings’s ignoble careers illustrate the institutional capture of the EIC, where they burdened the company with quasi-imperial responsibilities and risks, while personally hoarding the gains. No surprise that in 1772 the British taxpayers bailed out the EIC, extending a loan to stave off bankruptcy.

But British hegemony in India was born of more than the private interests of rapacious aspiring nabobs. The total chaos of the mid-18th-century Mughal collapse was such that India fell into their laps. In the war of all against all that defined India in the 18th century, Clive and Hastings were only exceptional in that they were British. By the second half of the century, India was divided between warring Mughal vassals bickering over who could manage to hold the emperor hostage.

Across the vast centre of the subcontinent, an array of warlords allied to create the Maratha Confederacy, which persisted as a power across the whole of the 18th century. Though lionised by modern Hindus for defeating Muslim invaders, at the time the Maratha playbook of raids geared toward looting and destruction left only fear and loathing in its wake. The Maratha invasion of Bengal in the 1750s resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Yet while men such as Clive and Hastings clearly operated purely on the basis of selfishness, a widely agreed fact, their leadership of the EIC arguably brought relative peace to the Indian subcontinent. Matthews notes that during the 1857 Indian Rebellion, the cities of Bengal stayed loyal to the EIC and the British, as did most of the native princes. Both factions preferred the peace of British India to the potential chaos — something akin to China under the warlords — that might have been unleashed by a rebel victory.

Nevertheless, Peace, Poverty and Betrayal chronicles the gradual disillusionment of India’s forward-looking urban elite with British rule, contrasted with the complacent satisfaction of the innumerable maharajas. By the time of the Indian Rebellion, a modernising native professional and capitalist class had emerged. When EIC governor-general William Bentinck banned sati, the ritualised burning of widows, in 1839, Indian objections were minimal. In fact, Ram Mohan Roy, a prominent Bengali cultural reformer and wealthy financier, had campaigned for banning the practice.

This cultural liberalisation within India in the 19th and 20th centuries was not just a tone-deaf top-down imposition from the Anglo-Indian elites, but a process that occurred in concert with native professionals. Much of the urban elite of India was educated in the British system, realising Thomas Babington Macaulay’s vision of “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”. Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the first leaders of India and Pakistan, both trained as lawyers in London.

The leadership of the Raj did remain the exclusive preserve of British aristocrats— though the EIC officers routinely mixed with and assimilated into the conservative Indian ruling class, while some Indian women became the ancestors of prominent British notables. Robert Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool and Prime Minister from 1812 to 1827, likely had an Indian great-great-grandmother. In the 1820s, EIC major-general David Ochterlony took his 13 Indian wives on a promenade atop 13 elephants around the Red Fort of Delhi.

Ochterlony, however, was the last of his kind, as officials and officers started to reflect 19th-century British cultural triumphalism and a more sober Christian outlook. The sharp turn away from synthesis and assimilation was even felt in the homes of company officials; the standard curries of the early 19th century gave way to vegetarian Indian cooks attempting to master the art of the roast.

But Matthews rejects standard histories which chronicle a transition from an EIC infinitely accommodating of local custom and tradition to one dominated by evangelical zeal and utilitarian calculation. The EIC still understood that active attempts to convert Hindus and Muslims would only result in hostility from the population they ruled. The business of the East India Company was business. Excessive evangelistic enthusiasm was tamped down. In 1847, those who served in the company were forbidden to engage in missionary work in any official capacity.

The toxicity of mixing religion and rule in India was illustrated by the infamous trigger for the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Rumours swirled that the Enfield rifle cartridges distributed among the sepoys were greased with cow or pig fat. Soldiers needed to prise out the cartridges with their lips or teeth before use, a gross violation of the religious taboos of both Muslims and Hindus. Later investigations proved that the grease was indeed from pigs and cows, but the reason was self-interested cost-cutting by obtuse contractors. In other words, a rebellion was sparked by capitalist avarice, not insensitivity of zealous Christians bent on trampling the beliefs of Hindus and Muslims. The British blundered into conquest and rule, and they blundered into a rebellion. Venality was far more common than malevolence.

The subsequent betrayal of India’s political and cultural elites after 1857 was due to short-sightedness. The British crown developed a much closer relationship to the conservative Indian princes, who were very positively disposed toward undemocratic rule on the subcontinent. The EIC conquest brought peace in the early 19th century, but the transfer to the British Raj in 1858 and the crowning of Queen Victoria as the Empress of India in 1877 consolidated and ossified an imperial system which remained fixed in the past, shutting out the rising Indian middle class from political power.

In addition to its political conservatism, the British Raj did little to alleviate poverty, inspired by the same economic theories which led to the calamitous Irish potato famine. India was subject to 24 major famines between 1850 and 1899 and millions died of starvation. Nobel-Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen argues that these tragedies were caused by a lack of accountability in an undemocratic regime, rather than the vicissitudes of the monsoons.

And so by the early 20th century, the Indian National Congress, precursor of modern India’s Congress Party, was agitating for full independence and national self-determination, while Mahatma Gandhi led campaigns of civil disobedience against the British colonial administration. The children and grandchildren of the prosperous burghers who had remained loyal in 1857 were no longer satisfied with just peace and order; they wished to govern themselves.

In the decades up to 1947, the Anglo-Indian ruling elite understood the looming future in the abstract, but refused to acknowledge the necessity of concrete steps. The tragedy of a hasty partition, and the death of millions, can be attributed to these attitudes and policies. Britain unwound its Indian responsibilities in haste, rather than in an ordered fashion. Matthews’s heterodoxy in treating the 18th and 19th centuries swerves back to expected orthodoxies in the 20th. Anyone familiar with the late stages of the British Raj will not be surprised by the depictions of the regime’s bumbling and missteps, but this unplanned improvisation was foundational to British rule in India, rather than a new development.

The reality of permanent chaos in decision-making leads us to the conclusion that the great prosecutions of British misrule in India are off-base. India as a part of the British Empire was a matter of prestige and pride for the ruling gentry, but its economic connections to the metropole have been greatly exaggerated. India’s poverty in the 20th century had more to do with the fact that its economic basis, subsistence agriculture, did not change much from the 18th century.

In contrast, Britain was at the forefront of  industrialisation before the conquest of India. Nationalist Indian observers such as Shashi Tharoor in his polemical Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India argue for a zero-sum world of wealth redistribution, but European nations without extensive colonies also underwent rapid development in the 19th century. The EIC itself was marginally profitable, and made many of its largest windfalls in the China trade. Taxation and goods remitted to Britain were always minimal.

The true impact of the British relationship with India was not economic, but cultural and social. It is an undeniable fact that the political and legal systems which constitute the machinery of the modern Indian state to this day are inherited from the British. The economic “great divergence” between the West and the rest of the world was a universal feature of the 19th and 20th centuries, not something special and peculiar to the relationship between India and Britain.

There was no need for transfer of wealth from India to Britain, because Western economies were all shifting toward higher value manufactured goods that ushered in a middle-class society well before the apex of the Raj. Nineteenth-century English historian John Robert Seeley observed that the British “seem, as it were, to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind.” But despite the lack of forethought, India inherited a salubrious set of institutions and norms from the Raj in terms of maintaining and keeping a liberal democratic republic. The modern Republic of India is a testament to this fact.