Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Decline and Fall of the British Empire

An interesting book that provides a comprehensive look at the British Empire - in the end although it gives examples of the atrocities they committed it exonerates them as being a well intentioned liberal Empire. Well, as the wag said history is written by the victors or as someone else put it " 'The victor will always be the judge and the vanquished the accused'"

What follow are some extracts from this book.


In the 1600s the Mughal Empire was a byword for might, majesty and magnificence. Its court was a self-proclaimed paradise of gems, silks, perfumes, odalisques, ivory and peacock feathers. English visitors were humbled by its luxury; when “John Company (as the East India Company was called) presented the Emperor Jahangir with a coach – the Emperor had all its fittings of base metal replaced with ones of silver and gold. The Mughals cities were bigger and more beautiful than London or Paris. Their bankers were richer than those of Hamburg and Cadiz. Their cotton producers clothed much of Africa and Asia and their hundred million population matched that of all Europe. What is more the seventeenth century was a golden age of Mughal art, poetry, painting and architecture.

After Aurangzeb’s death in 1707 however the empire started to disintegrate, as internal revolts spread and the Marathas devastated large tracts of central India. Delhi was sacked by the Persians in 1739 and the Afghans in 1756, the former carrying of the famed Peacock and the Koh-i-noor diamond as treasures worth billions. The Afghans carried out rape and massacre on an inconceivable scale. Britain and France exploited and exacerbated the disorder – forming alliances with local rulers and fighting increasingly for political as well as for commercial ends although these were inextricably intertwined. Thus cash from commerce paid native troops (sepoys) to take territory which yielded tax revenues and opportunities for further gain.

Bengal where the British first established themselves was one of India’s richest provinces whose fertile alluvial plain was watered by the great rivers, Ganga and Brahmaputr. The Mughals called this region “the paradise of the earth.” The East India Company officers came to this region as tyrants who were described as “hybrid monsters” (J W Kaye: Lives of Indian Officers 1889). Clive himself garnered several hundred thousand pounds as well as rights to valuable annual tax revenues from land, others exhorted lavish “presents” exacted vast profits and levied taxes on the local population. They made fortunes comparable to those of great English proprietors or large West Indian planters. They outdid the Roman proconsuls who in year or two squeezed outo f a province the means of raising marble palaces and baths on the shores of Camania, drinking from Amber, of feasting on songbirds, of exhibiting armies of gladiators and flocks of camelopards. They transformed Calcutta into a Gomorrah of corruption. The deluge of gold coins from India dazzled the whole western world. In Corsica, the young Napoleon Bonaparte dreamed of going to India and returning rich. Bismark in his youth had much the same idea until he thought, “after all, what harm have the Indians done me?” The British had no such conscience.

Bengal was bled white and by 1756 its people were provoked into a desperate revolt that was brutally crushed and further taxes imposed. Indian revenues (which perhaps amounted to a billion pounds sterling between Plassey and Waterloo) spelled the redemption of Britain but for Indians, pushed Bengal into a hellish existence. Millions died of starvation and famines wiped out a third of the population while British “bullies, cheats and swindlers” continued to prey on a hapless population.

William Hastings - first Governor-General of British India from 1773 to 1785.

p. 36
Hastings connived at the judicial murder of one Maharaja. He despoiled rich provinces. To local rulers who could afford it, he hired out his sepoy army, the best equipped force in India, equipped with firelocks and bayonets. Hastings also acquired a small fortune (tiny by Clive’s standards), sending 70,000 pounds sterling home in diamonds alone. He was particularly indulgent towards his second wife Marian, who dressed like an Indian princess,, braiding her red hair with gems and amusing herself by throwing kittens into a bowl full of enormous pearls which slid under their paws when they tried to stand up.

Partly due to the excesses of Hastings the homeland took political control away from the East India Company (The Pitt’s India Act of 1784) and vested it in the British Government. This change was accompanied by the growth of a racist aggressive nationalism and missionary zeal among the British in the following years. Smarting from the guilt induced by the excesses exposed by Hasting’s trial the colonizers took on the mantle of noblesse oblige – they were there because the Indians needed to be civilized and ruled because they were backwards and inferior.

Cornwallis (the next Governor-General of India, 1786-93), defeated Tipu Sultan of Mysore and took his little sons (aged eight and ten) captive holding them hostage to ensure that the defeated ruler stayed under his control. Cornwallis extorted vast territorial concessions plus a huge financial indemnity from Tipu. On the suface Cornwallis made a great show of taking care of the princes – but under the guise of guardianship he was using the princes as human pawns in a ruthless game of realpolitik. The charge that their Empire was a system of hypocrisy was one which irked the British because it came so close to the truth.

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