MICHAEL WOOD’S VIEW
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)