Quotulatiousness

July 30, 2017

“… sooner or later, and usually sooner, the British will be blamed”

Filed under: Books, Britain, History, India — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 06:00

In Pragati, Alex Tabarrok reviews Shashi Tharoor’s 2016 book history of the British Raj, An Era Of Darkness:

“Political Map of the Indian Empire” from Constable’s Hand Atlas of India, 1893.
(via Wikimedia)

At sophisticated dinner parties in Delhi, Calcutta, or Chennai, whenever the discussion turns to politics, one can be sure that sooner or later, and usually sooner, the British will be blamed. It’s a fine parlor game, and clever players can usually find a way to cast blame for whichever side of the debate they favor. Is India’s traditional family falling apart due to internet porn? Blame the British! Are the laws against homosexuality too strong? Blame the British! The British are an easy target because much of what they did was reprehensible. But blaming British imperialism for contemporary Indian problems is also an easy way to let India’s political class off the hook.

An excellent case against the British comes from Shashi Tharoor, bestselling author, former Under-Secretary-General at the United Nations, and current member of the Indian parliament, in his 2016 book An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India (also published this year under the title Inglorious Empire[UK title]).

Tharoor makes three claims:

  1. The British empire in India, from the seizure of Bengal by the East India Company in 1757 until the end of British government rule in 1947, was cruel, rapacious, and racist.
  2. India would be much better off today had it not been for British rule.
  3. Britain’s success and the Industrial Revolution were due to British depredation of India.

The first claim is true, the second uncertain, the third false.

The first claim is the heart of Tharoor’s book: the British empire in India was cruel, rapacious and racist. All true. But who would expect otherwise? Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The theft, the famines, the massacres, the formal and casual racism, the utter hypocrisy of suppressing independence while using hundreds of thousands of Indian soldiers to fight for democracy and freedom in two World Wars — on all this Tharoor stands on solid ground. The ground is solid in part because it has been well-trod. Tharoor brings the case against the East India Company and Britain, initiated by Edmund Burke (1774-1785) and continued by the likes of Indian nationalist Dadabhai Naoroji [PDF] (1901) and American historian Will Durant (1930), to its conclusion and climax with the Indian independence movement. In this, Tharoor is entirely successful and his work deserves to be widely read.

In his eagerness to blame Britain, however, Tharoor reaches for every possible argument in ways that are sometimes misleading and sometimes absurd.

February 26, 2017

British History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley Episode 3: The Jewel in the Crown

Filed under: Britain, History, India — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 10 Feb 2017

In the final episode, Lucy debunks the fibs that surround the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the British Empire – India. Travelling to Kolkata, she investigates how the Raj was created following a British government coup in 1858. After snatching control from the discredited East India Company, the new regime presented itself as a new kind of caring, sharing imperialism with Queen Victoria as its maternal Empress.

Tyranny, greed and exploitation were to be things of the past. From the ‘black hole of Calcutta’ to the Indian ‘mutiny’, from East India Company governance to crown rule, and from Queen Victoria to Empress of India, Lucy reveals how this chapter of British history is another carefully edited narrative that’s full of fibs.

July 11, 2016

First Opium War – II: The Righteous Minister – Extra History

Filed under: Britain, China, History, India — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 25 Jun 2016

Opium was illegal in China, but that didn’t stop the East India Company from manufacturing it for the black market. The Chinese emperor appointed an official, Lin Zexu, to stop it. He seized and burned huge opium caches held by British merchants, and ultimately ordered the British out of China entirely. Instead, they set up base on a barren island that would become known as Hong Kong.
____________

The tea trade flowing from China had left the British government in staggering debt. They had loaned huge amounts to the Honourable East India Company (EIC) to conquer India, and to pay their debts, the EIC turned that land into poppy fields and manufactured opium in huge quantities. Since China had banned the opium trade, the EIC set up a market in Calcutta (part of their Indian territory) and turned a blind eye to the black market traders who smuggled it into China. By 1839, over 6.6 million pounds of opium were being smuggled into China every year. The Chinese DaoGuang Emperor appointed an upright official named Lin Zexu to halt this opium trade. Lin orchestrated a massive campaign to arrest opium traders, force addicts into rehab, and confiscate pipes. He even laid siege to British warehouses when the merchants refused to turn over their opium supply, instead taking it all by force and burning it. The outraged merchants sought redress from their government, but although the Chief Superintendant Charles Elliot promised them restitution, the government never had any intention of paying them back. Amid the unrest, two British sailors brutally murdered a Chinese man. Lin Zexu demanded their extradition, but Elliot insisted on trying them aboard his ship and sentencing them himself. Lin Zexu had enough. He halted the British food supply and ordered the Portuguese to eject them from Macau. They retreated to a barren island off the coast (now known as Hong Kong). Since the island could not support them, Elliot petitioned the Chinese to sell them food again. He received no response. Then he sent men to collect it directly, but on their way back they were halted by the Chinese navy, and the first engagement of the Opium Wars began.

June 3, 2015

Re-examining the history of “the Raj”

Filed under: Britain, History, India — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In The Diplomat, Nigel Collett reviews a new book by Ferdinand Mount called The Tears of the Rajas: Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India 1805-1905:

It was the discovery of a book by his aunt, Ursula Low, published in 1936 and entitled Fifty Years with John Company, which opened Mount’s eyes to his family’s history and led to the writing of The Tears of the Rajas.

His aunt’s book, a work long ignored and derided as an eccentricity by her family, was a biography of her grandfather, General Sir John Low. What staggered Mount about his aunt’s account was her matter-of-fact recording of the massacres, mutinies and mayhem in which her grandfather and many of her relatives had been involved during their colonial careers. For General Sir John Low had, during a career in India that lasted from 1804 to 1858, seen the brutal suppression of the mutiny of his own regiment at Vellore a year after his arrival in India, the “White Mutiny” of European soldiers in the East India Company’s Forces in 1808 (which resulted in the massacre not of the European mutineers but of the Indian soldiers they led) and finally, in 1857, of the Indian Mutiny itself, which erupted at a time when Low was the Military Member of the Governor General’s Council.

More than this, Low, in a largely political career up until the outbreak of the Mutiny, had been intimately involved in policies which led directly to it, including the removal from power of three Indian potentates to whom he was attached as Resident (the Peshwa of Poona, the Raja of Nagpur and the King of Oudh) and the annexation of their lands. He was at one point, in yet another posting as Resident, personally involved in detaching a large chunk of Hyderabad from the lands of the Nizam.

During his service, Low had watched, and other members of his family had been involved in, the British annexations of Sind and the Punjab, the conquest of Gwalior and the disastrous attempt to depose Dost Mohammed, the Shah of Afghanistan, which led to the catastrophe of the 1st Afghan War. Mount’s title is well chosen: Low literally reduced several of his Rajas to tears.

[…]

Perhaps more stomach-turning than this, especially to a British reader, are Mount’s revelations of the dishonest policies followed by almost every Governor General of India towards India’s native princes, policies driven by pure greed, conducted with cold ruthlessness in utter disregard of treaties, promises or any code of honor, and hidden beneath layers of hypocritical cant. Much of this has not been made generally known. Few, for instance, in the Far East, will know that as the First Opium War in China ended in 1842, another began in India, for the British conquest of Gwalior was aimed at the control of the opium it grew independently of the East India Company.

The removal of misgovernment was all too frequently the fraudulent public excuse for the imposition of direct rule and the canard of the protection of the peasantry from their own rulers was little more than a front for taxing them more efficiently. Add to this noxious behavior insulting racial pride, ignorance of culture and tradition, and a religious evangelism that persuaded army officers that it made sense to tell their Hindu and Muslim soldiers that they would go to Hell if the wars into which they were leading them resulted in their unconverted deaths, and there seems little need for further explanation of why it all ended in disaster in 1857.

While I can’t claim to have read deeply in Indian history during this period, I still think the best introduction to the at-best-ambivalent legacy of British rule is the fictional exploits of Sir Harry Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser (especially the original Flashman, Flashman and the Mountain of Light, and Flashman in the Great Game). How many other novels have extensive footnotes about all the historical characters and situations the fictional hero encounters? Oh, right … for the younger set: trigger warning in all the Flashman novels for racism, sexism, imperialism, militarism, violence, and pretty much anything that would offend the ears of a young Victorian lady modern university student.

February 18, 2015

QotD: The Honourable East India Company

Filed under: Business, India, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

“John Company” — the Honourable East India Company, described by Macaulay as “the strangest of all governments … for the strangest of all empires”, was Britain’s presence in India, with its own armed forces, civil service, and judiciary, until after the Indian Mutiny of 1857, when it was replaced by direct rule of the Crown. Flashman’s definition of its boundaries in 1845 is roughly correct, and although at this period it controlled less than half of the sub-continent, his expression ‘lord of the land” is well chosen: the Company was easily the strongest force in Asia, and at its height had a revenue greater than Britain’s and governed almost one-fifth of the world’s population. (See The East India Company by Brian Gardner (1971).)

George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman and the Mountain of Light, 1990.

October 31, 2014

Digitizing the British Raj

Filed under: Britain, History, India, Middle East — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

BBC News provides some information on a massive project currently underway at the British Museum:

Muscat in 1811

A transgender singer hits stardom in Baghdad. Officials scramble to impose order after a Kuwaiti restaurant is found to be selling cat meat. Gulf royals on an official visit to London are left marooned in a drab south London suburb because of a shortage of hotel rooms in the West End.

These are some of the quirky stories hiding in nine miles of shelving at the British Library (BL) that hold the India Office Records — millions of documents recording Britain’s 350-year presence in the sub-continent.

The India Office did not only administer India, it also exercised colonial rule over an area stretching west as far as Aden. That’s why the files cover Persia and Arabia. And the reason the stories are coming to light is that the Qatar Foundation has paid £8.7m for nearly half a million documents relating to the Gulf to be digitised.

Work started in 2012, and many of those documents have now gone online at the Qatar National Library’s digital library portal.

Never formally part of the British Empire, the Gulf nonetheless came under colonial administration after being targeted for trade in the 17th Century by the East India Company. Two centuries later, the government established direct control through the India Office.

[…]

But principles of free academic inquiry, which guide the BL’s work, contrast with Freedom House’s assessment of Qatar as “not free”. Amnesty International called Qatar’s new cybercrimes law, passed last month, “a major setback for freedom of expression”, and Qatari writer Mohammed Al-Ajami remains in jail, serving a 15-year sentence for a poem deemed insulting to the monarch.

The BL and Qatar National Library (QNL) both hold copies of the digitised archive but Gibby’s expectation is that the portal – currently hosted by Amazon – will eventually be transferred for hosting in Qatar. That could theoretically expose material to manipulation by Qatari censors.

“That was discussed very clearly right from the beginning,” says Gibby. “Both sides made very clear to each other that there is no suggestion this will be censored. To date that has been borne out. We, the British Library, are trusting [the Qatar Foundation] and our faith is in them.”

H/T to Mark Collins for the link.

May 20, 2014

India Pale Ale – the first “global” beer

Filed under: Britain, History, India — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 07:05

The Economist looks back at the history of India Pale Ale, the first truly global beer:

INDIA pale ale (IPA) had a good claim to be the first global beer, before lager took a grip on the world’s tipplers. Now IPA, an amber, hop-laden brew, high in alcohol, is regaining its global footprint. Arguments rage about the origins and history of IPA. Britain’s territories on the Indian subcontinent were generally too hot for brewing. So a couple of hundred years ago, to keep army officers and officials of the East India Company away from the fearsome local firewater, beer was exported from Britain to take its place. Whether a beer already existed that had the characteristics of IPA or whether it was developed for the purpose is a matter of heated debate among beer historians. What is clear is that hops, which act as a preservative as well as a flavouring, combined with a hefty dose of alcohol for added robustness, ensured that the beer survived the long sea journey to India. Indeed, the months jiggling in a barrel onboard seemed only to improve the flavour. The style caught on at home, as the brew seeped onto the domestic market.

IPA’s popularity waned as the brewing industry changed. After the second world war, big brewers in Britain and America bought smaller competitors and flooded the market with bland, mass-market beers as old styles were abandoned in favour of a pint that would not offend anyone. In the 1980s brewing began to change again.

A minor quibble: in the snobby world of the British Raj, it wasn’t company concern for army officers and officials — it was those men being concerned that the troops in company army service or the lower-ranking clerks and functionaries not get too fuddled on local firewater. The officers and officials had their regimental officers’ messes and clubs which catered nearly as well as fancy gentlemens’ clubs in London. No beer for those chaps! Wine, whisky, and gin certainly (and in great supply) but beer was for the sweaty lads in the lower orders.

The beer that craft brewers like making the most is IPA. Artisan beermakers in America adopted old recipes from Britain for their IPAs but gradually began to adapt the brews to their own tastes. The heavy use of hops allows them to show off their skills in blending different flavours. Some parts of America, like Britain, have an excellent climate for growing top-quality hops. The bold flavours and high alcohol content create a beer that has a distinct style and bold taste, yet can come in many shades. The passion for hops in American craft beers has taken on the characteristics of an arms race, as brewers try to outdo each other in hoppiness.

The hop-addiction among craft brewers is well known. In fact, the demand for high quality aromatic hops is threatening to create shortages of the “good stuff” in the immediate future, as more craft brewers enter the market and try to out-hop the Joneses.

July 31, 2011

Another book to add to the “to be read” pile

Filed under: Books, Economics, History, Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 18:00

From the current issue of Reason, a review of a pair of new books on the concept of “empire”:

The Rule of Empires, by the Washington University historian Timothy Parsons, explores the fundamental contradictions of imperial rule, making the case that empires have become increasingly difficult to maintain as potential subjects’ identities have become less fluid and more nationalistic. In Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600–1900, the independent historian Stephen Bown takes a less systematic approach to the study of imperial power, but his book supplements Parsons’ by filling in the biographical details of the men who built Europe’s modern commercial empires. Both books demonstrate that while empire may seem a quick route to power and wealth, in the long run the idea is a military and financial loser.

[. . .]

Empires throughout history have claimed “to rule for the good of their subjects,” Parsons maintains, but this “was and always will be a cynical and hypocritical canard. Empire has never been more than naked self-interest masquerading as virtue.” To keep resources flowing from subjects to rulers, empires must walk a tightrope between subjugation and assimilation. If the state imposes draconian laws and taxes, it will face rebellion, so the rulers must seek out collaborators among their subjects who will assist in the domination of their fellow citizens. In return, collaborators are frequently brought into the imperial fold and given a portion of the spoils. But this leaves the empire vulnerable to conquering from the inside out, with many masters and few servants.

[. . .]

Empire building typically falls under the purview of governments, but in the 17th through 19th centuries, European states outsourced imperial conquest to quasi-private joint-stock companies. Governments granted these companies monopoly trading rights in distant regions and frequently offered their military might to ward off potential rivals. States rarely intended for the companies to become independent imperial powers, but the potential spoils of conquest proved hard for company officials to resist. After all, they had been freed from the discipline of competition, they were thousands of miles from political oversight, and their military risks were socialized by their state sponsors. As Bown points out in Merchant Kings, the EIC and similar corporations “were less the product of free-market capitalism than the commercial extension of European national wars and struggles for cultural and economic supremacy. They occupied the muddy grey zone that exists between government and enterprise.”

I’ve been looking for a good (recent) history of the East India Company for the last several months, so Merchant Kings sounds like it’d be of interest.

Powered by WordPress