Peace, Poverty and Betrayal: A New History of British India
Roderick Matthews, £25, 416 pages, Hurst London
Nations are sometimes formed not from within but by invaders. Just as Germany was created by Napoleon, so India, as a unified political entity, was the creation of the British. This fact creates understandable anguish, both among the great majority of British intellectuals, who writhe with embarrassment at the imperial past, and those Indian historians who wish to represent British intervention in their country’s affairs, from 1600-1947, as an uninterrupted sequence of exploitative acts of violent piracy.
A more nuanced view of things can be found in this excellent book, which readily admits the acts of greed perpetrated, and the arrogance of the imperial mindset, while sticking closely to observable facts, rather than ideology. In Ireland and in India, for example, I have twice been carried away by the rhetoric of Shashi Tharoor, a Congress politician who is a thrilling orator, and speaks with real fire about the economic exploitation of Indian craft, industry and commerce by the East India Company. Yet Roderick Matthews says, “Anyone who wishes to maintain that India somehow funded the Industrial Revolution in Britain will have to show in what years the EIC made a profit… how these sums relate to patterns of investment.”
A more nuanced view of things can be found in this excellent book, which readily admits the acts of greed perpetrated, and the arrogance of the imperial mindset, while sticking closely to observable facts, rather than ideology.
The truth is that for much of the time, India was a drain on Britain’s economy. This book is especially good on the last years – on Wavell, the penultimate Viceroy. Archibald Wavell had a detailed plan of withdrawal, drawn up in 1946, and as a good soldier and an old India hand he could never have made as much of a murderous mess of things as the popinjay Lord Mountbatten – to whom this book is too kind. Matthews makes the point that the key British figure in those years was Attlee. It was Clem Attlee who ended the 182-year British involvement in India – partly because he was a socialist who disapproved of empire, partly because he was leading a country, after 1945, which was bankrupt and simply could not afford India any more. Alas, Wavell “was considered too much of a liberal by Churchill, and too much of a soldier by Attlee”.
Central to Matthews’s whole story is his perception of what happened after the Sepoy uprising of 1857 and the subsequent killings. Up to the so-called Mutiny, the British had on the whole been a force which sided with Indian progressives or liberals. One thinks for instance – Matthews is very good on this exciting aspect of the story – of William Sleeman stamping out the “thags” (thugs) who were killing thousands of travellers. One thinks of Macaulay (whatever his deplorable generalisations about the “effeminacy” of Bengalis) bringing educational and legal reforms which are the foundation of modern Indian law, schooling and universities. But after the Mutiny, the British tended to side with the conservative Indian landowners, the princes and maharajahs, against the urban political progressives. It was always the Victorian liberals who believed that the Indians needed rescuing from themselves, with their unenlightened practices. This was the explanation, which Matthews explores with great delicacy and intelligence, for how Britain became itself, at home, more liberal and democratic, while, as an imperial power, becoming the opposite. In a nice phrase, he points out that the high Tories wanted Britain to be governed more like India – ie by the landowning rich – whereas the liberals felt it was their duty to spread cricket, barristers in wigs, and public schools throughout the sub-continent.
Matthews explores with great delicacy and intelligence
There are many paradoxes about the history of British India, many of them contained within the complex personalities of those involved. Matthews is acute about the psycho-history as well as the economics, and those who enjoyed this book as much as I did will feel wiser about, for example, why Burke supported the Mughals against Warren Hastings – as an Irishman, he was able to see the British through the eyes, first of American colonists, then of discontented Indian peasants. When Churchill crops up, you feel like spitting – I always do whenever this “old war criminal” (as Auberon Waugh rightly called him) appears. His dismissal of the great Gandhi as a “seditious Middle Temple lawyer” is, as Matthews points out, simply wrong. Gandhi attended the Inner Temple. And we are disgusted, but not surprised, to be told that when, during the 1930s, Churchill was invited by a former Viceroy to meet some Indian politicians, Churchill responded, “I am quite satisfied with my views on India. I don’t want them disturbed by any bloody Indians.”
AN Wilson is the author of Victoria: A Life (Atlantic)