Home > 2021 > A British View of Colonial India | M R Narayan Swamy

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 33, New Delhi, July 31, 2021

A British View of Colonial India | M R Narayan Swamy

Friday 30 July 2021, by M R Narayan Swamy

Peace, Poverty and Betrayal: A New History of British India

by Roderick Matthews

HarperCollins India

20 June 2021

Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 440 pages

ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9354227325
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9354227325

If freelance writer Roderick Matthews is to be believed, Indians complain too much about British (mis)rule of the sprawling landmass that was once the Indian empire. That the British ruled India for nearly two centuries (1765- 1947) proves it could not have been “irredeemably bad”; not a shot was fired in anger as the British packed up, showing “the story had a peaceful beginning and a peaceful end”. In any case, Indians as a body did not ‘nationally’ resist the British arrival nor did all Indians try to expel them in 1857.

Matthews says the centrality of law and order to British policy, and its importance to their sense of their own legitimacy as rulers, cannot be doubted. Indians railing against the British as looters is misdirected and inflated anger, focused on trivialities like the Koh-i-noor diamond. He pooh-poohs the infamous “divide and rule” policy as this would imply that Indians were always united when they weren’t. Indian claims of a national opposition to the British are rejected; if the resistance was so strong, “why did alien rule last so long?” According to him, the most relevant factor in the rise of communal identities, which led to the break-up of India, was electoral politics, not the colonial government per se.

The book is not a one-sided view of British Indian history. The author says the most significant thing the British stole from Indians was the opportunity to design their own future. Britain understimulated the Indian economy, ignoring Indian interests. Colonial rule was heavily responsible for keeping India poor and backward. The rulers were liberals but this did not devolve on the ruled to any great degree. The British displayed public arrogance and titanic condescension in India. India’s failure to flourish despite British rule was attributed to Indians; so the British must remain as defenders, governors and educators.

Matthews’ reading of the 1857 mutiny – or First War of Independence – is somewhat problematic. He admits the rebellion was more widespread than the British liked to admit. “We know what the revolt was against. What is not clear is what it was for.” The fact that Britain ruled for 90 long years after the rebellion and didn’t quit the country “under hostile gunfire” proves “it was not British aspirations that were most damaged by the events of 1857, but Indian.” Indians collectively lost of the chance to make a modern India of their own design; the British took the opportunity to create a version of India that suited them.

It is the account of 1857 and the savagery that gives the clearest hint that the author’s innate sympathy lies with the British. That the soldiers revolted against an alien government is known; the British, who had no business to colonize India at the first place, then used superior weaponry not just to defeat the enemy but to slaughter them, brazenly violating all norms. Brig Gen James Neil marched up from Calcutta “hanging anyone he thought deserved it” – note the self-justification in mass killing. After an attack by Nana Sahib at Kanpur, a British force surrendered. The troops were shot down as they embarked and the women and children were captured. The 211 hostages were murdered and the bodies thrown into a well. Note what follows blandly: “This may have been a form of reprisal for the widespread lynching that was going on all along the Ganges.” Henry Lawrence, the Resident to Awadh, was killed in fighting. He is described as a “deeply pious Christian (who) sincerely believed that the British had divine work to do in India”! Similarly, Brig Gen John Nicholson, before he was killed in Delhi, hanged “a group of regimental cooks who tried to poison him”.

Once Delhi was taken by British troops, an orgy of plunder, murder and destruction followed. The emperor was taken prisoner and “several members of his close family were killed out of hand”. (Were the British different from those who killed 211 civilians in Kanpur?) When Governor General Charles Earl Canning took a conciliatory line to end the massacre, he was derisively dubbed ‘Clemency Canning’ by hardliners in Calcutta intent on annihilating everyone who rebelled. He had argued that indiscriminate executions violated grounds of justice and humanity; while murder was punishable by death, summary executions and collective punishments were not acceptable.

What did the rebels want? They opposed unfair, unresponsive, oppressive and socially corrosive effects of colonial government, including heavy taxation and hardship among the merchant classes, and sought equality before the law. British arrogance was a key cause. “Politically, the rebels’ message was simple – the foreigners must go.” Beyond that, the author says, the soldiers seemed headed either for the past or for anarchy.
“The British were deeply shocked by both the ferocity of the insurgency and the fact that so many millions of Indians had apparently been able to keep such a terrible ‘secret’ so well… It betrayed the enormity of the gulf that had opened up between the rulers and ruled.” Matthews says it is not entirely correct to say the British were frightened post 1857. “They were shocked and chastened.” After the revolt, India remained “a permanently alien place to the British”.

Railway building quickly followed but the author admits a major reason was that troops could be moved with swiftness on trains. Likewise, education was promoted not just to ‘improve’ Indians but so as to turn the Indian population from subjects into ‘profitable allies’.

Since many Britons presiding over India’s destiny were advocates of laissez-faire economies, they opposed government interference in the mechanism of supply and demand. This, Matthews admits, prefigured the British reluctance to intervene during famines in India through the 1860s-70s. In 1886, another devastating famine claimed nearly a million lives in Odisha. A sickening famine overtook south India in 1876-78 as the government didn’t sanction import of grain to the area; on the contrary, India continued to export grain! The deaths did not prevent the Raj from organizing an extravagant Durbar in January 1877 to mark the elevation of Queen Victoria to the imperial crown of India. When the Indian press denounced wasteful expenditure and threadbare famine relief, the Vernacular Press Act of India 1878 was introduced to gag Indian language publications. The 1943 Bengal famine was the worst, killing up to three million, the incompetent and corrupt relief measures failing to ease the distress.

We are told that Thomas ‘Diamond’ Pitt was one of the first Englishmen to work out how to make a large personal fortune in India. From his personal fortune, Pitt bought a large uncut diamond of 400 carats for 24,000 pounds in India and sold it to the Regent of France for 135,000 pounds. “The family fortune was secured.”

Robert Clive’s personal aggrandizement is well known. Many East India Company’s servants “simply scooped up whatever cash they could for themselves.” Clive sailed to India on a salary of 5 pounds a year; he returned to England in 1753 with a personal fortune of around 40,000 pounds. By the time he finished his second innings in India, his net worth was about 300,000 pounds. He also enjoyed a substantial income of around 27,000 pounds per annum from a ‘jagir’ gifted to him by Mir Jafar, father in-in-law of the deposed Siraj-ud-Daula. “Clive had collected several lifetimes’ worth.” But the plunder of Bengal, it is said, was not the Company policy; it was the work of unsupervised individuals. Who would supervise Clive, the empire builder? Was Clive punished? “He was tacitly reprimanded for taking money for himself.” Acts of corruption by the British is a recurring theme. Thomas Babington Macaulay admitted that early British rule was corrupt and unsavoury.

Yes, there were genuine liberal Britons. But they could be counted on fingertips. The reality is British colonial rule left India vastly poorer and backward. The “advantages” of colonial rule were incidental. Yes, no one fired at the British when they left; this was more due to the overarching influence of Gandhi’s philosophy. Matthews rightly observes: “In India the government chose to fight foreign wars, spend money on self-aggrandizing durbars, and sit by while famine ravaged the land. This was the greatest betrayal.”

Matthews has tried to understand Anglo-Indian history in a wider context than usual by assessing how developments in England determined what kind of colonial government – and governors – India got and what sort of India would emerge from colonial rule. To that extent this book is well informed. Many Indians will disagree with many assertions made in the book but it cannot be denied it is a scholarly and penetrating study. The book is a must read it to understand the British perspective of an empire that ultimately could not be sustained.

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