As before, rather than just summarising the chapters in question I'm pulling out and offering my own comments on those parts pertinent to my PhD research, skipping the less relevant bits.
While the following interpretation of events will inevitably be influenced by Schama's writing, it is an attempt to create my own analysis from that.
When the sepoys garrisoned at Meerat, northeast of Delhi, fired the first shots of the war of Indian independence (to the British, the ‘mutiny’) on 10 May 1857, it was through anger at far more than being ordered by their British officers to grease their rifle cartridges with beef tallow (taboo to Hindus) or pig fat (taboo to Muslims). These were merely the latest of a host of indignities, insults and injustices suffered under a British rule which they now resolved to tolerate no longer. Rallying to the Mughal court in Delhi, they declared the emperor the legitimate sovereign of India and the start of a national uprising.
The grievances of the rebels were religious, cultural, material and secular. The influx of Christian missionaries – including those that adopted children orphaned in the famines and then brought them up in their own religion – as well as the general imperial contempt for Indian tradition and customs gave the uprising the overt character of a holy war against infidels. But it was also a war against economic exploitation and tyranny. Schama cites a particularly notable example.
“One of the triumphs of British ‘engineering’ in India was the building of the ‘Great Hedge’, a staggering 1500-mile barrier of thorns and acacia designed to prevent Orissa salt from being smuggled into Bengal to compete with imported salt from Cheshire; any that did get through was subject to penal tariffs. As many as 13,000 men were employed by the customs police to enforce this discriminatory practice, even as the pieties of free trade were being trumpeted in London and Manchester” p240.
The gap between imperial rhetoric and reality was plainly visible all over the world. If a mutually beneficial exchange between colonial producers and British manufacturers did exist, it tended to involve the white colonials of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Southern Africa. Their darker skinned neighbours – like the indigenous peoples of Australia and Africa expelled from their lands or simply massacred in order to make room for livestock grazing – saw rather less of the material improvements promised by the empire.
Imperial grandees like Lord Palmerston, who served 15 years as Foreign secretary on and off before becoming Prime Minister, claimed that peace and prosperity went hand in hand under British rule, and that domination of the world economy had fallen into Britain’s lap as a just and natural reward for commercial skill, energy and ingenuity. The truth was rather less uplifting.
When the China attempted to resist British opium imports, it was met with demands for market access and extra-territorial rights for British traders in Chinese ports. Outrage at this denial of the laws of global economics was unconfined, and augmented wherever possible by laments about the more backward and repressive elements of Chinese culture, which were suddenly of great concern to those determined to turn millions of Chinese into drug addicts. The Opium Wars were, by this rationale, wars for economic freedom and the civilisation that was sure to follow in its wake. “But of course the British and the rest of the Europeans were not arresting, but accelerating, the destruction of imperial China; and then, as the century wore on, making the resulting ‘anarchy’ a pretext for further military and political intervention. It was as if the doctors who had brought the disease in the first place were decent enough to show up offering – at a price – the cure” p242.
British military expansionism in Asia was now in full cry. The northern territories of the subcontinent were invaded and annexed, their treasuries looted, all, naturally, in self-defence (this time against ‘potential’ aggression from Russia). With the increased confidence of power came increased heavy-handedness . After annexing the province of Awadh, the British swept aside the local ‘rajahs’ and inserted themselves as the new tax collectors. But the ‘rajahs’ had been more than simple exploiters of the peasantry whose removal would be welcomed as long as taxes were slightly reduced into the bargain. They were feudal lords and patrons whose paternal role was intimately woven into the fabric of local peasant society. So when the people rallied to their rajahs during the uprising, though it shocked the British it was, in reality, only to be expected.
The demeaning, sometimes sadistic treatment of sepoys by their British officers combined with each broader injustice to the extent that, even though the offending cartridges had been withdrawn before the uprising began, the total breakdown of trust engendered by the sheer arrogance of British rule had rendered the point moot. That particular straw had already broken the camel’s back.
The war threw up scenes of huge bloodshed, with atrocities committed by the sepoys answered by savage British reprisals. The rebellion was largely put down in about 12 months, contained as it was broadly within the Ganges valley, but pockets of resistance endured until as late as 1860.
Britain’s approach to the governance of India now changed markedly. EIC rule was replaced by that of a viceroy, council, and secretary of state. Ambitious plans of westernisation were set aside in favour of stable maintenance of the status quo. The problem, it seems, was that the British had been working with defective material. “The universalist assumption of the Enlightenment that all men, given the right education, could become much the same had been replaced by the harder, ‘scientific’ fact of incommensurable difference; it was put most brutally in the 1890s by one viceroy the Earl of Elgin, who jovially complained what ‘a terrible business [it is] this living among inferior races’” p256-7.
Some came to romanticise the rural, “real” India just as the likes of Coleridge and Wordsworth had romanticised rural Britain earlier in the century. Mixed in with this was the enduring racism through which the colonial subjects continued to be judged. “One of the worst things his enemy, [Liberal Party leader] William Gladstone, thought up to say about [Conservative leader Benjamin] Disraeli was to call him ‘Asiatic’, by which he meant constitutionally irresponsible, amoral and shamelessly devoted to pleasure, self-indulgence and dandyism” p259. But the othered image of an anachronistic Asia – be it as romanticised exoticism or denigrated semi-savagery – was at odds with the reality of the very modern India which the British themselves were involved in creating. “The reality of British power in India was coming to depend more, not less, on the world of the great port cities they had created; on the ruthless exploitation of plantation economies in Assam and Burma for teak, mahogany, tea and the always tempting though seldom reliable indigo (with chemical dyes it would fade altogether); on the mesh of connections that brought together Indian entrepreneurs with the British bankers, shippers and insurance men who made the export business tick along” p258.
“When in 1876, Disraeli, with the help of the Rothschilds, pulled off the huge coup of buying the Khedive of Egypt’s shares in the Suez Canal (and with it control of European access to India) he transformed the strategic and economic prospects of the British Raj” p263 and, in doing so, guaranteed the continuing, transformative march of imperial history. And yet, at the same time, liberal ‘progress’ was giving way to jingoism and the romanticisation of old orders. At home, Disraeli’s attempted to dazzle the newly enfranchised masses with the pomp and circumstance of the rejuvenated Victorian monarchy. A similar revival of old world pageantry was underway on the subcontinent, as the British co-opted the Indian aristocracy using ‘durbars’, or audiences with the viceroy to bestow favour, status and the trappings of empty power. The rationale was articulated by Lord Elgin who “unblushingly and cynically insisted that ‘all orientals are children, amused and gratified by external trappings and ceremonies and titles and ready to put up with the loss of real dignity if only they are permitted to enjoy the semblance of it” p263.
There was then to be a new, grounded and stable hierarchy. At the top, the newly declared (by Disraeli) Empress of India. Below her, the Raj, and its new viceroy, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, arriving in India in 1876. Below him were the pet rajahs and their semblances of dignity. And at the bottom, the Indian population. This was deemed preferable to the previous attempt to create a class of ‘brown Englishmen’ to administer the subcontinent on London’s behalf. “Politically speaking”, opined Lytton, “[India] is an inert mass – if it ever moves at all it will move in obedience, not to its British benefactors but to its native chiefs and princes however tyrannical they may be” p265.
But the oriental “children” had more pressing concerns than the manufactured pageantry of the Raj. The ‘prosperity’ and ‘welfare’ promised by Victoria in her message to the Grand Durbar of 1877 had not merely failed to materialise, their suggestion had become a bad joke. In the week of that ceremony alone “100, 000 were estimated to have died of starvation and cholera in Mysore and Madras” alone. “In 1860, 2 million had died in the Punjab. In 1866 nearly 27 per cent of the population of Orissa, some 800,000 had died; in 1868 a quarter of the population of Ajmere. In 1877-8, during Lytton’s administration, the famines have been responsibly calculated to have cost over 7 million lives” p268.
As had been the case in Ireland, British administrators saw the famines as “a ‘natural’ or ‘providential’ event that it was beyond the powers of government to ameliorate” p268. But there was nothing natural about, for example, the systematic destruction of salt production in Orissa, through tariffs and finally outright prohibition, which had robbed that region’s people of an income. Relief, in the form of grain imports or tax suspension, was rejected as interference in the market. “An Anti-Charitable Contributions Act (something that should modify our assumptions about the ubiquitous philanthropy of the Victorians) was passed expressly to prevent aid coming from Britain and the Indian cities, which was said to be, delaying the necessity of ‘soft’ Indians being made to stand on their own two feet” p269. Again, as in Ireland, what relief there was was only made available in labour camps, to few people and in tiny amounts.
“At the same time, grain depots in Madras and Bombay were full of imported rice, heavily guarded by troops and police to prevent thefts or riot. The famished...dropped dead in front of the fenced stockpiles. By a bitter irony, by the end of the century it was evident that it was those areas of India that had the most railway mileage and the most commercially developed economies that suffered most brutally in the famine years, because of the ease of transporting grain to markets where it could be hoarded to maximise the profits from price rises” p270 [emphasis in original].
“The problem...[was] one of income, not of gross food supply”. Imperial administrators insisted that the natural workings of the market would resolve the issue, ignoring “the hypocrisy of a policy that purported to be free trade but was in fact unscrupulously interventionist. Tariffs were nakedly manipulated to favour British imports and disadvantage Indian products; millions of tons of grain were shipped out in 1877-8 to stabilise British home prices, while Indian prices were allowed to soar in Bombay and Madras to levels that guaranteed starvation. Lytton had even enacted a cut in the tariffs on imported British cottons at the precise time when the Gujarati weavers were suffering more than most urban populations in India. And still could be heard the reiteration of the ancient, sanctimonious nostrums: let them stand on their own two feet” p217
“What was in the process of utterly breaking down was the original liberal axiom of reciprocal prosperity. Prosperity at home in Britain seemed to be bought at the expense of the accumulation, of wealth in India. Only those in India who collaborated with this institutionalised and legislated economic inequality, such as grain shippers and textile importers, got their due rewards. Three particular circumstances in the 1870s and 1880s made this unlikely to change. First, Britain itself was in an economic downturn and very unlikely to feel charitable towards India at the expense of its own recovery, or to raise not just prices but the spectre of working-class unrest at home. Second, the home economy was feeling the pinch of competition from the United States and European rivals like Germany: exports were shrinking and once again Britain was unlikely to sacrifice its captive imperial markets for the sake of long-term economic maturity. (By the end of the century India was easily the biggest of all Britain’s export markets, taking fully 10 per cent of total exports – overwhelmingly cheap manufactured Lancashire cottons, the product that more than any other had destroyed the Indian textile industry.) Of all the facts to refute the ‘benevolent development’ thesis of British imperialism, this was perhaps the most irrefutably damning. Finally, revenues for investment in infrastructure that would actually benefit Indian peasant producers (rather than import-export merchants) had to compete with what, for viceroys like Lytton, was the supreme and over-riding interest – that of strategic military expansion on the northwest frontier lest the Cossack hordes come pouring through the Khyber Pass. The Indian taxpayer paid the full price for British strategic paranoia” p272.
Lytton even pillaged the famine relief fund to pay for his military campaigns in Afghanistan [p272] as well as gagging the increasingly dissident Indian press with the Vernacular Press Act of 1878 [p280].
In 1880, Gladstone came to power, replacing Disraeli, with some understanding of how Britain’s mistreatment of its imperial subjects was both wrong and counterproductive. Gladstone was no great progressive, believing in franchise extension only for those who, in his own assessment, merited it. But though his was a Victorian morality, it was also a genuine one, in so far as it went. So while he was prepared to imprison leaders of the Irish land league without charge, he was also prepared to listen to and to try and understand their grievances: extortionate rents, summary evictions (without compensation for improvements made to the smallholdings during tenancy), and so on. Gradually, Gladstone became convinced of the need for Home Rule (i.e. limited autonomy) for Ireland.
But elsewhere, Gladstone, for all the distrust of imperialism that he had expressed in opposition, did seem to take to empire’s task rather well. When the Khedive of Egypt was threatened by a military uprising (partly provoked by his economic mismanagement which had led France and Britain, Egypt's creditors, to seize control of the country’s revenues) Gladstone waded in with all guns blazing to restore the Khedive’s ‘legitimate’ rule, not to mention Britain’s revenue stream. This led to Egypt effectively becoming Britain’s colony, with a permanent military presence. Gladstone, like every imperial hypocrite before him, convinced himself that this was all merely in the name of ‘peace’ and ‘stability’ p280.
But in the case of Ireland, at least as far as Gladstone was concerned, pragmatism demanded a move towards autonomy since, given the growing antipathy towards British rule, the only alternative might soon be total severance. This assessment was by no means widely shared. The arguments put forward by the Tory Arthur Balfour, in his warnings to the Irish Unionists on the dangers of Home Rule, were the direct descendant of those expressed by Ireton 240 years earlier on the dangers of popular enfranchisement. The Unionists, said Balfour, would be “put under the heel of a majority which is greater than you in number [but which] is most undoubtedly inferior to you in political knowledge and experience – you the wealthy, the orderly, the industrious, the enterprising portion of Ireland, are to supply the money for that part of Ireland which is less orderly, less industrious and less ...law-abiding” p284.
The defeat of Gladstone’s moves for Home Rule exposed, again, the fiction of Britain’s claim to be pursuing a liberal-paternalist mission that would one day, someday, lead to the colonial subjects running their own affairs. Indiginous movements for self-governance that did emerge in Ireland and India drew on their own traditions and histories, rather than the myth of Britain’s liberal progress through the ages. Britain made belated attempts to buy off those calling for self-determination – as had happened at home with the piecemeal extention of the franchise – introducing limited forms of elected government. “But it was very much a case of too little, too late” p291. The methods of ‘swadesh’ (boycott) and ‘hartal’ (non-cooperation) were making the Raj ungovernable. Gandhi’s concept of ‘satyagraha’ – truth, and love even for one’s oppressor, as a liberating force – was drawn from India’s own proud liberal tradtions. Moreover, Gandhi not only rejected the version of modernity imposed by British rule, but hoped to liberate both the oppressed and, perhaps, even the oppressor from the idols of profit and power. There was a civilising mission at work here, but it was being instigated not by Whitehall, but against it.