New Books on India and the Western domination
The Scandal of Empire:
India and the Creation of Imperial Britain by Nicholas Dirks
The British Empire and the Second World War by Ashley Jackson
Published by Hambledon Continuum
Harvard University Press
The History of British Empire by Niall Ferguson
The War of the World:
History’s Age of Hatred by Niall Ferguson Allen Lane
There are some new books by the currently known historians and they are teaching in US universities. Ferguson teaches history at Harvard University and Dirks who is dean of arts and science and also a professor of anthropology and history at the Columbia University. I am not competent to judge their scholarly status in the discipline of history today. History writing has become a new discipline, it is called historiography.
We find the new books on India and the British Empire and also on the two world wars and the current decline of the West, a decline once the West lost old empires and the America today seen as the sole world power, all give much pessimism about the future of the world.
Before you set forth to write a history you have to define your own philosophy of history. That is only right, considering how much history writing has been used and misused in promoting, less goodwill, more harm and hatred among the nations and peoples. There are any number of misunderstandings between two peoples, two religions, two nations and two civilizations than any evolution of understanding between races and peoples and neighbors.
The twentieth century is itself an example and a warning for historians today and tomorrow. After Eric Hobsbham, we find the new historians, Ferguson in particular borrowing the same description of the 20th century as the bloodiest century in modern history.
The British Empire books give us, Indians some new insights. The British army under the empire saw the Indian army to swell from 2, 00,000 at the beginning of the war (1939) to more than 2.5 million at its end. So much of massacres of the Indian lives! For whom they all died? Indians of this generation have to ponder and ask!
The US-based historians all seem to imagine as Oswald Spengler asked in his book “The Decline of the West” published in English edition in 1926-28, a book that influenced Pandit Nehru too, that the decline was because of the two world wars. If so, the current view is that the decline, if not so, at least the descent of the West started from the Hiroshima atom bomb in 1945, then the Korean War and now we can see the decline extended to the 1989 and later to the Bosnia-Herzegovina, the start of the clash civilization thesis?
It looks like that. The Europeans have a sense of history but not the Americans. They never seem to be seized by a sense of the remorse that we can detect in the European history and European imagination.
Only one warning to the Indian readers who might read such latest books. Nowadays, books, more than the novels and other such stuff, even great scholarly books are written and published with an eye for publicity and modern-style marketing. We find that Fergusin is one such publicity-seeking guy! He had written simultaneously for the television series!
In my time at Oxford we had what we called the “telly dons”, the serious scholars who appeared on the new TC screen and thus got wide publicity. In this league came A.J.P.Taylor and A.J.Ayer, the philosopher. Now, the commercialization process of culture must be crossing the limits. So, keeping in mind the excesses of generalizations to border on sensationalism and PR, these books and the new views have to be digested.
Even now, see the world after the eruption of terrorism, there is any number of historians writing and interpreting history. The Americans are now more active and one thesis is the clash of civilizations! As if the world of Islam and the world of West (Christianity) are totally two different worlds. This silly view of history is also doing much harm in almost all major societies; see the religious problems in UK, France and Germany and other nations, also in the USA. Muslims are targeted on grounds of some religious symbols of one kind or other. What if the Muslim children wear scarf when they go to schools in France. The French government had sought to ban the wearing of scarf and that produced problems. Also, the migrants in the developed countries. The rich countries want the cheap labor the migrants give and yet the host countries don’t want to give the migrants the freedoms and a sense of equality and belonging. So too the Hispanic (Spanish speaking) children in the Californian schools.
The UNESCO has its task cut out and yet the USA had almost emasculated the UN body by starving it of funds. We need a more pro-active UNESCO to produce the needed teaching materials to teach history and geography without any bias. It is in this background I read through or read through the reviews of the two books by two active historians who had written on India. All my reading on Indian history had so far been routine, I would read any book on India that catches my attention. As for professional historians I have only a few to read in some respect. I like the late A.J.P.Taylor, the Oxford historian who had been wronged by the Oxford University when it refused to promote him as Regius Professor in the place of one very low caliber Trever Roper, who was considered a conservative historian and Taylor too radical to stomach by the conservative academia.
But brilliant historians there were too many in my time. There was E.H.Carr, the famous one who wrote: “What is History” the perennial favorite for some generations now. In fact, there was too much of historians’ controversies in my time. I don’t know now the position.
Though I read often more history book reviews in learned journals and enjoy the several new books. The two now under my consideration come with new themes. One by Ferguson justifies the British Empire and its role in giving India all the benefits, rule of law etc. While the one by Dirks is all about how the British Empire helped to destroy India, so to say!
There are of course so many British writers on India. They belong not to the category of professional historians, but somewhat amateur historians or writers on India, being old India hands, some retired civil servants others belong to the families of old India hands. One is Charles Allen whose books have been many; Allen family had served India for six generations! Another one is David Golmour, the biographer of Lord Curzon and his latest book deals with the number of civil servants who had served India. This book is very moving and tells the self-less service rendered by some of the officers whose business was to do their duty and we should not burden their conscience with the rights and wrongs of the Empire.
Ferguson’s new thesis is that British Empire pioneered free trade, capital movements, free labor, liberty and democracy. The book or the two books have come out at a time when the US war in Iraq is making news headlines everyday. So, obviously the discussions or reviews always compare the old empire with the new American empire that is merging! Dirks new book in fact takes this comparative thesis and gets into the working of the old empire as a case study for showing, as in Iraq; in India too scandal and corruption marked the empire.
What is the current view of Indians? About the impact of the British rule in India? Or, as now, when India is dealing with the civil nuclear co-operation with America and when the educated Indians have migrated on a scale that had no precedence to the US shores or the Indian IT companies had hitched their fortunes with the outsourcing business that fetches so many billons of dollars.
Ask any IT millionaire or billionaire such a question as to what is the future? What historical lessons from such “free trade, capital movements, learning of the American corporate lessons etc”?
Very likely any average IT millionaire is likely to brush aside such questions. May be as the old Indian generations, the ICS to the army sepoy to others, money lenders and others who encountered Robert Clive in Bengal and finally one fine morning they lost the country to the predatory Britons!
No, history won’t have any lessons for the present generation of Indians? From the past empire experience to the new empire that is emerging? Hard questions. Yes, harsh questions they are! Fortunately or unfortunately history is a hard task master and a harsh teacher!
Anyway, here is what I have read through. British East India Company’s charter was in jeopardy as early as 1693; the company shares were used to influence parliamentary support for charter renewal. In 1695, just a few years after the opening of the stock market in London, the report of the parliamentary investigation into the developing scandal over quick fortunes made through bribery and insider trading led to the dismissal of the speaker of the House of Commons, the impeachment of the lord president of the council and the imprisonment of the governor (Lord Pigot in Chennai) of the East Indian Company.
Robert Clive dubbed the “founder of the empire” for his military role in the conquest, went to India as a pauper and returned as a wealthiest man in England! He was the subject of a parliamentary enquiry in 1772 and before he was to be exonerated, he committed suicide! By 1788 the spectacular impeachment of India’s governor-general, Warren Hastings took place and it was generally perceived Britain simply looted India of its wealth.
Thus, the very origin of British Empire was steeped in scandals and bribery and day time robbery! The “Black Hole” of Calcutta was a truly black day for India, Indian, Mughal governor in 1756 did a horrible job and that was a great black mark when the “hole” killed 146 unfortunates. Then, every great or black history point gets noticed for generations to follow we see the British children were taught for so many years of the “black hole”, as Indian children are taught about the great Jallian Walla Bagh tragedy!
Of course, the Empire apologists justified their rule by telling us about the benefits of English language, the abolition of sattee, thuggee and yes, we Indians have to be thankful for such small mercies and though millions perished in the periodic famines, famines that were thrust on us for no fault of our own. So too millions perished in the many wars Britain fought, most notorious were the first and the second wars. But do Indians teach our children today about these scandalous wars? Unfortunately, I find even to this day there are highly educated middle class Indians, English speaking and very cultivated who take Winston Churchill, the great John Bull, as the very embodiment of bravery and leadership. In spite of the insults he used on great leaders like Gandhi and Nehru and Churchill who was conferred with a Nobel Prize for Literature! Yet such a specimen of empty boastings!
What is galling about the new historians like Ferguson is that they are in a hurry to produce more books and so we find that soon after the India book, he had now gone for a new one on China. Here too we find the British prejudices. They all seem to eulogize China as if the country is going to be the centre of the new world. As the USA is eulogized as the centre of the world now!
Says Ferguson:” Just like the British Empire before it, the American empire unfailingly acts in the name of liberty, even when its own self-interest is manifestly uppermost”
Dirks in a subsequent column in the Financial Times notes “such kind of history, as the one by Ferguson, not only white-washes the actual history of the events of the past, it also neglects the fabrications and scandals that were so common in the early years of empire as the current engagement with Iraq”.
The column concludes: “Empires were always a scandal for those who were colonized. What we seem to forget is that empires have always been scandals for the colonizers as well”
It looks that you can’t read so much history without first having your own theories and theses of historiography. So many prejudices get into print in the name of history; often the dominant West gets a favorable hearing, while the not so dominant rest of the world is left out of such hearing. So, a sort of balanced world view has to be developed before we start believing these histories!