MICHAEL WOOD’S VIEW

BBC History Magazine - - Contents -

Early this year, friends from Delhi sent me a new book which has made quite a stir in In­dia – An Era of Dark­ness: The Bri­tish Em­pire in In­dia by the au­thor and politi­cian Shashi Tha­roor. “Hope you like it!” Kr­is­han wrote with a mis­chievous flour­ish.

The book is a polem­i­cal his­tory of Bri­tish In­dia – not the tale told in the pages of Charles Allen’s Plain Tales from the Raj (though Allen’s book is still es­sen­tial read­ing to un­der­stand the men­tal­ity of the im­pe­ri­al­ists). Tha­roor sees the Raj as a mas­sive sys­tem of ex­tor­tion and ap­pro­pri­a­tion de­signed to ex­tract In­dia’s wealth and, be­cause of the loss of life through famine and vi­o­lence, one of his­tory’s great crimes. Not sur­pris­ingly, the book has be­come a cause célèbre in In­dia, where a new gen­er­a­tion has none of the af­fec­tion to­wards Bri­tain that is still found among many over-60s.

When it was pub­lished this year in the UK (here called In­glo­ri­ous Em­pire), there were some dis­senters, but most thought it was about time. In the op­u­lent sur­round­ings of the Royal Over-Seas League, next to Lon­don’s Green Park, Tha­roor talked to a packed au­di­ence mainly of In­di­ans and Bri­tons of In­dian de­scent – and young ones at that – lay­ing into Bri­tish com­pla­cency and his­tor­i­cal am­ne­sia. Most Brits, he ob­served from a re­cent Gallup poll, had never even heard of Robert Clive, the vic­tor at Plassey in 1757 – the first step to em­pire. The Bri­tish em­pire in In­dia, he ar­gued, was def­i­nitely not a Good Thing. Ra­pa­cious and cruel, de­lib­er­ately bleed­ing In­dia dry, it de­stroyed In­dia’s tex­tile, ship­ping and steel in­dus­tries and was re­spon­si­ble for mil­lions of deaths through wars, famines and epi­demics. Even the com­mu­nal ri­ots of the 20th cen­tury are laid at the door of the Bri­tish pol­icy of di­vide and rule.

The end re­sult was an im­pov­er­ished sub­con­ti­nent. In the hey­day of the Mughal em­pire, In­dia’s share of the world’s GDP was 23 per cent. When the Bri­tish left, it was 3.8 per cent. And the ben­e­fits? Niall Fer­gu­son’s brac­ing plea for im­pe­ri­al­ism, Em­pire (2003), gets it in the neck. For­get law, par­lia­men­tary democ­racy, rail­ways, you name it – all Tha­roor is pre­pared to leave us with is the English lan­guage, tea, cricket and PG Wode­house!

The au­di­ence in the club lapped it up. I came away feel­ing – not for the first time – that the 2014 vic­tory of Naren­dra Modi’s Hindu na­tion­al­ist BJP (though not Tha­roor’s party) had fi­nally drawn the line un­der the Bri­tish Raj.

My own sym­pa­thies, as can be seen in our Story of In­dia films (2007), are broadly with Tha­roor’s ar­gu­ment. But his­tory is a com­pli­cated busi­ness; there are al­ways many nar­ra­tives, and there is much to dis­pute in the de­tail, even if one may agree with his gen­eral th­e­sis. Be­fore the Bri­tish, after all, there was no one In­dia. In the north, Mughal rule im­pov­er­ished the peas­antry in the 17th cen­tury, and as Qing China de­clined and Europe and the USA rose, the cen­tre of grav­ity of the world’s economies shifted mas­sively to the dis­ad­van­tage of a dis­united sub­con­ti­nent. Big­ger global forces were in play. But, nonethe­less, such re­vi­sion­ist in­ter­pre­ta­tions are vi­tal. The im­pe­ri­al­ists no longer write the his­tory.

Isn’t it all the more im­por­tant, then, that the Bri­tish em­pire should be taught in our schools? For good or ill, it is one of the great events in his­tory; and it shaped us all, what­ever our so­cial or eth­nic back­ground. If the study of his­tory en­cour­ages stu­dents to think, to de­velop crit­i­cal judg­ment and cul­ti­vate sym­pa­thy to­wards other peo­ples and cul­tures, the em­pire could hardly be more suit­able as a sub­ject of study. And isn’t the fact that its in­ter­pre­ta­tion is so prob­lem­at­i­cal an­other plus for the think­ing stu­dent?

Our view of im­pe­ri­al­ism and colo­nial­ism needs con­stant in­ter­ro­ga­tion, es­pe­cially in an in­creas­ingly po­larised world. The Opium Wars in China, the so-called ‘In­dian Mutiny’ – th­ese are huge events in our his­tory, and in the cur­rent tor­rent of ‘fake news’, it is in­cum­bent on his­to­ri­ans to tell us the truth about their im­pact and le­gacy. Sixty per cent of Bri­tons still think the em­pire was a good thing, but tremen­dous events like the In­dian in­de­pen­dence move­ment force us to see our­selves, and our own his­to­ries, very dif­fer­ently. And that can only ever be a good thing.

Michael Wood is pro­fes­sor of pub­lic his­tory at the Univer­sity of Manch­ester. He has pre­sented nu­mer­ous BBC se­ries and his books in­clude The Story of In­dia (BBC Books, 2008)

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