Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Two new Guardian articles

The Guardian published two more articles from me this week.

The first is entitled, "How Scientific is Political Science?" The argument I make there is that it is neither possible nor desirable to research the subject of politics in an apolitical, value-neutral way, as many mainstream scholars claim to do.

The second is entitled "I welcome the 'Where are you from?' question my brown skin elicits", which is a response to Ariane Sherine's article in last week's paper, where she expressed her exasperation with being often asked about her background. Like her, I'm born and brought up in the UK and of mixed-ethnicity, but I take a different view of being asked about my family origin. I think its positive when people have a friendly curiosity about difference, and certainly not something to be discouraged. That article's published in today's print edition, as well as on the website.

Labels: , , , , ,

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Future echoes: the seeds of globalisation’s informal empire in Britain’s formal imperialism

[DW - I'm presenting this paper to the Duham International Affairs Conference later this week. Its the first draft of what I hope will become a journal article, so, as ever, comments are welcome]


This paper explores the evolution of Britain and its foreign policy, identifying the themes in its previous formal empire which can illuminate our understanding of the current, informal imperialism of globalisation. The paper makes three central points. First, it describes the historical continuity between the two imperial forms and how the informal imperialism of globalisation evolved out of Britain’s formal empire. Second, it notes that a key feature of this continuity is the effective ownership of both imperialisms by an identifiable socio-economic class. Third, it challenges the Liberal view that freedom for wealth and general political freedom are mutually complementary by showing how these two imperial structures have tended to privilege the first of those freedoms at the expense of the latter.


Under twenty-first century globalisation, a transnational class of investors, bureaucrats and opinion-formers work together to shape the global political economy to serve their interests, in a process that frequently involves evading or thwarting democracy and the popular will. This international governing class is bound together both by shared material interests and by a shared legitimising ideology that it characterises as favouring mutually-dependent free-markets and liberal democracy.

The foundations of modern globalisation were laid by the British Empire in the nineteenth century, but the distinction between the informal globalised imperialism of today and Britain’s earlier, formal empire is not clear cut. An examination of how Britain and its foreign policies have evolved over the past four centuries reveals the shared characteristics of the two imperial forms: the domination of a propertied class, collaborating both with the domestic state and with peers across borders to advance their individual and collective interests, and bound together by a legitimising ideology that rebrands its pursuit of material prizes as a high-minded, moral-ideological crusade. We also find that, both in bourgeois British imperialism and in the bourgeois empire of modern globalisation, the official doctrine of free-markets complementing liberal political forms masks the reality of propertied interests waging a constant struggle against democracy and popular self-determination.

Scholarly work that explores particular concepts or paradigms of understanding tends to focus on what is novel and distinct about the concept in question and what separates or differentiates it from other, ostensibly competing frames of reference. However, it is possible to value a theoretical viewpoint whilst still acknowledging where it overlaps and even complements the paradigms that it attempts to set itself apart from. That is the approach taken in this paper. Rather than discussing what is unique or distinct about “informal empire”, I propose instead to explore what an informal and a formal imperial structure have in common. My aim in doing so is not to call into question the validity or utility of the concept of “informal empire”. Rather, it is to make some observations regarding a few of the common and essential features of imperialism – formal and informal - in order to offer a reminder of why these phenomena ought to concern us as scholars on a moral as well as an analytical level. Specifically, I will explore the illiberal, anti-democratic nature of imperialism, and its role as a tool of social and economic elites, highlighting these aspects by tracing their persistence through the evolution of British imperialism from its earliest days, up until the emergence of the modern globalised world for which the British Empire laid the foundations.

The paper will take the following structure. I will begin by proposing a view of the modern global political economy as an “informal empire”, where the sovereignty of individual nations is curtailed by the power of a transnational ruling class which exercises that power through national and international structures of governance and economic institutions and activities. I will then review some key aspects of the evolution of the British empire, stressing the point that - though more state-centric than the informal imperialism we see today – the former, formal empire was also the project of a particular elite group. I will devote particular attention to the way in which democratic forms of government were explicitly rejected in favour of the rule of a propertied elite in the earliest days of the British empire, and the implications of that outcome in the evolution of the empire. I will move on to show how the British empire helped lay the foundations of today’s informal imperialism, and note some ‘future echoes’ of those modern imperial forms in the British imperialism of the nineteenth century. I will then talk briefly about the transition from British global dominance to the international political economy of the present day, noting Britain’s changing role in that changing system, before concluding with a summary of the shared characteristics of the two imperial forms.

The globalised political economy as an informal empire

If we think of an empire as an international power structure wherein imperial subject societies have their sovereignty and capacity for self-determination curtailed by an identifiable external force that exerts its will upon its subjects in order to serve its own interests, then it can certainly be plausibly argued that the modern, “globalised” political economy fits this description in many important respects. Under this interpretation of today’s international scene, it is plainly easier to identify the subjects of imperial power than those who wield it. The subjects are those forced to contend with their vulnerability to capital flight, damaging international financial flows, foreign military interventions and (in some respects) the dictates of international governmental institutions. The extent to which a society can consider itself an imperial subject is inversely proportional to the extent to which it is capable of resisting such forces and retaining control of its own destiny. Though some societies are clearly better equipped to meet this challenge than others, the current serious disruption to the international economy highlights the vulnerability of even the most powerful societies to these external forces.

A harder question to answer is that of whose empire this is. The temptation is to fall back on familiar views of empires as state-centric. But does this adequately capture the nature of power, where it resides, and how it behaves in the present day? If the essence of imperialism is the exertion of power and the curtailment of sovereignty and self-determination across borders, then shouldn’t our understanding of empire allow room for whomsoever wields that kind of power, be it a city-state, a nation-state or, perhaps in today’s world, a social class?

Neo-Gramscians have argued that “[w]e need to move away altogether from a statist conception of hegemony ... and revert to a ... view of hegemony as a form of social domination exercised not by states but by social groups and classes operating through states and other institutions” under which “states have been captured by transnationally oriented dominant groups who use them to integrate their countries into emergent global capitalist structures” (Robinson:561 & 563).

This view of the power of transnational economic forces is not new (and indeed predates the adoption of “neo-liberal” economic philosophy by the world’s leading states, though that philosophy is today recognised as the legitimising ideology of this form of international economic power). Writing in 1979, Eric Hobsbawm noted that the world had entered a “phase of economic development ... marked by a notable re-emergence of the transnational or supranational elements in the world economy” and that “the emergence ... of forms of economic organisation which not only cut across or transcend the boundaries of national economies but compete with them and may be beyond their control, is hardly to be denied” (Hobsbawm:1979:314-5).

By 1999, Susan Strange was able to present a compelling case to the effect that the state system (described by Strange as the “Westfailure system”) was now incapable of dealing with these transnational forces effectively. Strange identified failures to prevent damage to the world’s environment, to preserve a sustainable distribution of wealth and resources worldwide, and (rather presciently) to control the international financial system, as showing that the most serious forces and dynamics affecting humanity now lie outwith the control of nation states (and therefore, one might add, outwith the realms of democratic accountability).

Strange echoes Robinson’s remarks on the role of a particular class in this system of power:

“A common assumption is that the present system is sustained by the power of a transnational capitalist class. I have no doubt that such a class exists and does exert its power over the market economy and the rules – such as they are – that govern it. ... [We might recognise] the emergence of a transnational interest group with powerful levers over national governments including that of the United States and members of the European Union” (Strange:353)

Strange does sound a note of caution regarding the use of the term ‘class’, since it “suggests far more solidarity and uniformity than in fact exists” (Strange:353). But we can accept the disparate and diffuse nature of economic power in the system whilst still also acknowledging, as Strange does, the not-inconsiderable extent to which it is able to act in a concentrated and effective manner to advance its interests and impose its will. In this respect, perhaps the most telling of Strange’s observations are those on wealth disparity:

“The discrepant and divergent figures on infant mortality, on children without enough to eat, on the spread of AIDS in Africa and Asia, and on every other socio-economic indicator tell the story. The gap between rich countries and very poor ones is widening, and so is the gap between the rich and the poor in the poor countries and the rich and the poor in the rich countries. It is not that we do not know the answer to socio-economic inequalities; it is redistributive tax and welfare measures ... . But applying that answer to world society is frustrated by the Westfailure system, so closely tied in as it is with the ‘liberalised’ market economy” (Strange:351-2)

When wealth and power are so closely interrelated as to be practically synonymous, disparities in wealth are necessarily disparities in power, and the level of global economic inequality is therefore inversely proportional to the extent that we can consider ourselves to live in a democratic world. If Strange is right to say that the answer to the problem of wealth inequality is well known, and only not implemented because nation states are subject to external forces that oppose such moves, then that would strongly suggest that many societies in the world have the status of imperial subjects: unable to pursue self-determination and improvement because they are subject to the will and self-interest of an external force.

This view directly contradicts the notion of “free-markets” as complementing liberal political forms. The central argument in Naomi Klein’s recent book “The Shock Doctrine” is that the economic philosophies of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School which have been most closely associated with “globalisation” in recent years are often implemented in public policy through a subversion or evasion of democracy. Klein provides a number of well-documented examples – Chile in the 1970s (Klein:75-115), post-apartheid South Africa (Klein:194-217), post-Communist Russia (Klein:218-262) and Sri Lanka after the Asian Tsunami (Klein:385-405) – of neo-liberal economic policies being put into effect in situations, be they exploited or deliberately engineered, where democratic scrutiny and accountability was either weak or absent. These were instances (most obviously in the case of the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile) where “states have been captured by transnationally oriented dominant groups who use them to integrate their countries into emergent global capitalist structures” (returning to our earlier quote from Robinson).

No discussion of empire or hegemony in the early twenty-first century could credibly ignore the role of the United States, especially given the vast military resources at that country’s disposal. But it is not to deny the existence of an American imperialism of some description to point out that this particular international power does not operate in a narrowly state-centric fashion. As Robinson notes:

“The result of US military conquest is not the creation of exclusive zones for ‘US’ exploitation... . Rather, the beneficiaries of US military action are transnational capitalist groups and the US state has, in the main, advanced transnational capitalist interests. Shortly after taking control of Iraq in 2003, for instance, the US occupation force unveiled ‘Order 39’, which provided unrestricted access to Iraq for investors from anywhere in the world” (Robinson:569, see also Klein)

The global role of the US state, in other words, is the maintenance of a broad global economic and political system (from which it of course expects to benefit).

“[Since 1945] the US has shouldered the responsibility for protecting the interests of the “satisfied nations” whose power places them “above the rest,” the “rich men dwelling at peace within their habitations” to whom “the government of the world must be entrusted,” as Winston Churchill put the matter after World War II” (Chomsky:33)

In this analysis, the state functions not in the interests of the nation as a whole so much as in the interests of a class of people and institutions located both nationally and internationally. We need not therefore discard all references to the state when analysing the current imperial forms. The state plays a crucial role; the key is to understand what precisely that role is.

In summary, we have an imperial system where state and economic institutions work on the behalf of a broad but nonetheless recognisable socio-economic class to exert power and influence across international borders. This class power may be concentrated in some locations more than others, and some states may take a more leading role in the system than others, but the system remains transnational and class dominated.

Also, since direct territorial control is a rarity, and since the legitimising ideology of liberal democratic forms and “free markets” plays as important a role in persuading national elites to draw their nations into this global system (by whatever means) as material pressure or military might, this empire can then be classified as informal.

But to what extent is this really a departure? I would argue that though the current informal imperialism of the globalised international political economy has undeniably unique and novel characteristics, it is nevertheless the product of historical processes, and many of its key features as identified above are very much recognisable in earlier, more formal empires. To illustrate this point, I will review some pertinent aspects of the evolution of Britain and its empire.

Democracy vs Property in the English Civil War

The question of in whose interests the British state should be run was a live one in the earliest days of the British empire. This was not purely a question of which particular social elite would take the reigns of governance. The question of whether the public as a whole should be enfranchised was openly debated, with the notion firmly rejected by the propertied classes on the explicit grounds that democracy would run counter to their interests.

The English Civil war of the mid-seventeenth century is most commonly understood as a struggle between the Puritan oligarchs of Parliament and the monarchists who were, broadly speaking, not unsympathetic to Catholicism. The Puritans’ increasing willingness to insist on their version of Christianity, the Parliament’s insistence on its rights as a constitutional body, and King Charles I’s insistence on his own divine right to rule, all combined to produce a bloody, full-scale civil war which eventually saw the monarchy overthrown and replaced by an oligarchical republic headed by a dictator, Oliver Cromwell.

What is less widely known is that towards the end of the civil war, with the Royalists essentially beaten and minds turning to what form of government would replace the monarchy, there was, momentarily, a real chance that events might conspire to produce Western Europe’s first recognisable democracy (or at least, proto-democracy) in Britain. The fact that this did not come to pass had fundamental implications for the country Britain would become, the empire it would go on to build, and the global political economy that would emerge from that empire.

Parliament at this time was not a democratic body, its members in the Commons were elected only by those owning estates worth 40 shillings or more (Foot:7). This excluded all but a small fraction of adult males, and the entirety of the female population. The distribution of seats bore no relation to the distribution of population.

“Of the Commons’ 492 members, 265 came from tiny boroughs too small for any meaningful election, many of them nominated by the King. Add to this ... the widespread buying of seats, routine bribery and the power of the rising monopolists of industry and trade, and the representative element in Parliament was next to nothing. ... . The glaring truth about Parliament was that it was an assembly of rich men chosen overwhelmingly by rich men for the purpose of safeguarding and extending the property of rich men” (Foot:8)

When in the aftermath of war the Parliamentarians airily dismissed growing discontent amongst the Republican army’s ranks over pay and conditions, they would not have expected this dispute to lead to a fundamental challenge to their own authority, which they would have assumed to be secure following the King’s defeat. But the army had become increasingly influenced by a political movement known as the Levellers, which demanded radical democratisation. The statement of Leveller leader Richard Overton in 1645 that “[a]ll men are equally alike born to like propriety, liberty and freedom” (Foot:9) preceded similar statements from the American founding fathers by nearly a century and a half. Specifically, the Levellers called for:

* annual Parliaments,
* an end to secret Parliamentary proceedings with these instead to be recorded and published,
* payment of MPs so as not to limit this job to those of independent means, and
* Parliamentary reform to equalise constituencies and remove the “rotten boroughs” where Commons a seat was secured through some corrupt means rather than free election.

When the rank and file of the army, through its elected representatives, echoed the Levellers demands in October of 1647, they did so without even the specification (which one might well have expected in the extremely socially conservative England of the 1640s) that votes be limited to the male population. When the army marched on London, at one point seemingly holding in its power the ability to dismiss Parliament and impose its demands without negotiation with its supposed masters, the Generals of the army (who, with the exception of Admiral of the Fleet, Thomas Rainsborough, lined up with the Parliamentary oligarchs) realised that those demands would have to be addressed. There followed one of the key episodes of British history: the Putney debates.

The Putney debates offer a clear challenge to the notion – central to the legitimising ideology of “globalisation” – that freedom for wealth and general political freedom are mutually complementary. At Putney in October 1647, property and democracy clashed head on.

Speaking for the democrats, Thomas Rainsborough said:

“For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under...” (Foot:28).

For the rights of property, Henry Ireton, Commissary-General and Cromwell’s son-in-law, replied:

“I think that no person has a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom, and in determining or choosing those that shall determine what laws we shall be ruled by here – no person has a right to this, that has not a permanent fixed interest in the kingdom” (Foot:29).

By a “permanent fixed interest” Ireton meant substantial property. He went on to say that only “the persons in whom all land lies, and those in corporations in whom all trading lies” should be able to vote, because if “we shall go to take away this, we shall plainly go to take away all property and interest that any man hath” (Foot:29).

Ireton’s position was that universal enfranchisement was a threat to privilege and property – an anarchist’s charter. Rainsborough countered that accusation by saying (and here Foot paraphrases) that “the rule of the rich, unchecked even by the votes of the poor, was far more anarchic than any threat to property from votes for the poor” (Foot:30).

As the debate went on, the fears of property were expressed more openly. Colonel Nathaniel Rich said “It may happen, that the majority may by law, not in confusion, destroy property; there may be a law enacted that there shall be equality of goods and estate” (Foot:30) while Ireton at one pointed blurted out, “I have a property ... and this I shall enjoy”. To be deprived of this was “a thing evil in itself and scandalous to the world” (Foot:32).

In respect of the fears of Ireton and Rich, it should be noted that the Levellers and those who sided with them at Putney were not, unlike some of their contemporaries (like Gerald Winstanley and the Digger movement), proto-communists. The stress they placed was on political rather than economic equality. But the implications, the threats posed by democracy were well understood by those who enjoyed the benefits of an economically unequal system (Foot:34).

Though the democrats are thought to have won a formal vote on these principles at the Putney debates (Foot:34), a combination of cajoling, bullying and outright violence ensured that the Generals won the day in any event (Foot:38-40). Leveller leaders were jailed, the dissenter printing presses stamped out, and any mutinous activity in the army put down with deadly force. In scenes reminiscent of the final paragraph of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, the country’s upper classes now hailed Cromwell as their saviour; since the executed King was no longer there to defend them and their property, Cromwell would fulfil this role as ‘Lord Protector’. (Foot:41-43)

The implications of democracy’s defeat

Cromwell’s first Parliament was entirely unelected. The second was chosen by a smaller electorate than had returned the last one under Charles. (Foot:43) In fact – save for the fact that the head (King, House of Lords and bishops) had been lopped off the English body politic – society continued much as before under the Republic, run as it was by the upper, middle and landowning classes of “the magistrates chair...county hunts..and..city counting houses” (Schama(a):175-7)

These men “invested far more time and energy in preventing any sort of radical change than in promoting it”. They were “businessmen of state, mercantilists, money-managers. And in their swaggering, beady-eyed way, fierce patriots” whose ideology was “the aggressive prosecution of the national interest”. This governing class built an empire for itself, not only on the British archipelago through Cromwell’s brutal wars on the Irish and Scots, but also overseas, in the North Sea, Baltic and Atlantic. “It was commercially rapacious and militarily brutal, beery chauvinism erected into a guiding principle of state .... [Britain and its new empire were now run] by a corporate alliance of county gentry and city merchants”. (Schama(a):178)

The death of Cromwell destabilised the new gentry/merchant-dominated state, depriving it of an authority figure to hold the competing interests together. The Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 was an attempt to place Charles II in this role, i.e. to pick up where Cromwell, not the previous king, had left off (Schama(a):201-3). The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was undertaken by that same new propertied, governing class to keep the monarchy in its place and ensure further continuity. With that accomplished, the ruling class was able, in its collective interest, to put the fratricidal violence of the seventeenth century behind it and getting on with the serious business of making money. Presided over by grandees-come-oligarch godfathers like Sir Robert Walpole, imperial expansion into the Americas and the Indian subcontinent proceeded, vast wars with Spain and France were undertaken to cement Britain as a new global power, and a kind of military-commercial complex began to emerge, creating “another kind of army ... bond-holders, tax-assessors and accountants; customs and excise men, thousands upon thousands of them”, tied together by patronage and collective self interest (Schama(a):277).

A further, critical source of growth for the new commercial aristocracy was the slave trade. “By the middle of the eighteenth century, the mercantile ‘empire of liberty’ was critically dependent for its fortune on the economic universe made from slavery” (Schama(a):343). Britain’s single most valuable import was the sugar produced by three quarters of a million West Indian slaves, generating huge personal fortunes and general enrichment which was in turn to transform both the economy and British society. The ports of Bristol and Liverpool developed and expanded significantly as a direct result of the transatlantic trade. The great library at All Soul’s College, Oxford was built thanks to a donation from the Codmingtons of Barbados. The banking houses of Barclays and Lloyds grew rich, and reinvested in manufacturing. And the nouveaux riches of the trade were now throwing their weight around in Westminster and the City of London.

By the latter part of the eighteenth century, the nature of the nation state that had been created by those who had defeated democracy, and their heirs, was reasonably clear. It was this Britain which would produce the 19th century empire that really set the scene for today’s global, informal empire.

Creating a World Economy

The “long nineteenth century”, dating from the French Revolution to the outbreak of World War I, has been described, most notably by Hobsbawm in his magisterial works on this period, as being the era in which bourgeois political, economic, cultural and ideological forms rose into the ascendency across the globe, remaking the international political economy in their image (Hobsbawm 1962, 1975 & 1987). Though, as noted above, a propertied class of oligarchs had been making its presence felt as a leading player in the governance of Britain from at least the days of the Cromwellian republic, it was in the “long nineteenth century” that the old aristocracy was decisively sidelined by a new, modern bourgeoisie. This was a development that was either completed, begun or at least had its presence felt across the globe. But as the country in which the industrial revolution originated, and whose imperial power and scope was most extensive, it was Britain – or to be more precise, the elites that governed Britain - that took the lead in this revolutionary process.

Britain set itself up at the centre of a global web of economic activity. As Giovanni Arrighi explains:

The recycling of imperial tribute extracted from the colonies into capital invested all over the world enhanced London’s comparative advantage as a world financial centre vis-à-vis competing centres such as Amsterdam and Paris. This....made London the natural home of haute finance – a closely knit body of cosmopolitan financiers whose global networks were turned into yet another instrument of British government of the interstate system” (Arrighi:54)

In addition, by opening itself up as the consumer market for the world’s producers, Britain made itself the indispensable hub of international economic activity; indispensable, in particular, to a growing international economic class who relied upon British finance to expand their businesses and British consumers to purchase their products. Arrighi notes that

the national communities that had risen to power in the Americas and in many parts of Europe [in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries] were primarily communities of property-holders....It was these communities that formed the “natural” constituency of British free trade hegemony” (Arrighi:56)

Property-holders remained the leading or governing force at the imperial centre as well as in the colonies, dominions, and areas subject to Britain’s effective control. Successive waves of popular protest against elite rule and in favour of representative democracy were beaten back by the British state (most notably in the wake of the French revolution, and again in the Chartist movement of the mid-nineteenth century) with the use of political repression and occasional outright violence. Political reform, when it did come, was piecemeal and aimed at buying off as small a sliver as possible of the propertied lower-orders so that the rest could be safely ignored. Universal male suffrage without any property qualification was only achieved after World War I, with female suffrage coming later still. The domination of British politics by property was near-total during the nineteenth century (to say nothing of its continuation after that) (Foot:45-237; Schama (b):13-109).

So when we speak of British imperialism, we should consider the term as shorthand. It was not the miners of Merthyr Tydfil who dictated terms to Tipu Sultan of Mysore or the Khedive of Egypt, but a British state firmly in the control of an economic elite; an elite more given to collaborative political and economic action with similar classes than with its own compatriots.

This international class also possessed a legitimising ideology for the pursuit of its self interest. The British mode of imperialism, Arrighi goes on to say, “established the principle that the laws operating within and between states were subject to the higher authority of a new, metaphysical entity – a world market ruled by its own ‘laws’ – allegedly endowed with supernatural powers” (Arrighi:55). These laws were adhered to even at times when departing from them might have saved thousands, or millions of lives, as in the case of the Irish potato famine and the epic famines that gripped British-ruled India in the latter part of the nineteenth century (Schama(b):195-235). There seems little doubt that British officials such as Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Charles Trevelyan, who presided over these calamities, genuinely felt that to defy the market and simply provide relief for the starving was, though it is hard to comprehend it today, not the moral course of action. The strength of the legitimising ideology that accompanied British economic and imperial power was demonstrated by the fact that it was sincerely believed and religiously adhered to even when tested to obvious and total destruction.

Another key component of this ideology was the notion that British imperial rule was a form of altruistic missionary work whose purpose was not only to benefit Britain but to benefit its imperial subjects as well. Self-rule, in India for example, would be introduced just as soon as the country, in Britain’s judgement, was again able to stand on its own two feet as a fully-fledged member of the modern world. It was, it seemed, merely a happy coincidence that the point where India suddenly and mysteriously mislaid its ability to govern itself (after centuries of producing a succession of the world’s leading civilisations) was the very same point in history that Britain appeared on the scene, ready to nurse the patient back to health and, again entirely coincidentally, make an enormous profit in doing so.

It should also be noted that when the empire did eventually withdraw it did so at a point when it was no longer physically capable of maintaining control over the colonies in the face of strong pressure from highly mobilised and dedicated independence movements. Moreover, those independence movements often drew their liberatory philosophies from their own histories and not from the British tradition in which they were allegedly being educated. For example, in the case of India, Gandhi’s concept of ‘satyagraha’ – truth, and love even for one’s oppressor, as a liberating force – was very much an indigenous concept. 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 what he saw as the false idols of profit and power. There was a civilising mission at work here, but it was being instigated not by Whitehall, but against it (Schama(b):292). In the end, democracy in the former colonies was not an achievement of Britain’s liberal empire so much as a result of its defeat. And yet, though it is easy to be cynical, in hindsight, about oxymoronic notions of a liberating empire, there is little doubt that they were held by the likes of Thomas Macaulay and James Mill with as much sincerity as their freely expressed contempt for Indian civilisation as they found it (Schama(b): 199-212).

In summary, many of the key features of the today’s informal imperialism were present also in Britain’s more formal imperialism of eighteenth and nineteenth century: the role of commercial activity in binding countries and economies together in the specific interests of a certain, transnational class, with one particularly powerful state taking the lead role in the system, and with that system legitimised by an ideology that recast the intrinsically non-democratic exertion of economic and political power in the interests of that class as a high-minded civilising mission undertaken in accordance with liberal values.

Britain’s informal imperialism

Additionally, no review of the commonalities and continuities between Britain’s formal empire and modern informal imperialism could ignore the fact that informal empire was also a key part of British imperialism. As Gallagher and Robinsion pointed out

It ought to be a commonplace that Great Britain during the nineteenth century expanded overseas by means of ‘informal empire’ as much as by acquiring dominion in the strict constitutional sense. ... [To ignore this in our studies of British imperialism] is rather like judging the size and character of icebergs solely from the parts above the water-line” (Gallagher & Robinsion:1).

After all, as Gallagher and Robinsion go on to say

Between 1815 and 1880, it is estimated, £1,187,000,000 in [British] credit had accumulated abroad, but no more than one-sixth was placed in the formal empire. Even by 1913, something less than half of the £3,975,000,000 of foreign investment lay inside the Empire. Similarly, in no year of the century did the Empire buy much more than one-third of Britain’s exports. The basic fact is that British industrialization caused an ever-expanding and intensifying development of overseas regions. Whether they were formally British or not, was a secondary consideration” (Gallagher & Robinsion:5)

In those parts of the world informally subjected to the rule of the British led system – for example Latin America (Brown; Gallagher & Robinsion) and the Middle East (Onley) – the continuities between imperialism past and present are even more in evidence. Access to markets and raw materials was secured through treaties, the exertion of political and economic influence, and the ever-present threat, in the background, of military force. While Britain’s formal empire was later to be dissolved, these informal structures of imperial power were to persist through the twentieth century and into the present day, albeit under new management.

Britain’s decline and the transition to globalised informal empire

Whilst Britain’s dominance of the world system was undermined by the industrialization of its rivals, eroding its head-start in the race into the modern world, it was the catastrophes of the period between 1914 and 1945 that dealt the fatal blows to the world’s first global empire. Whilst a world economy (or at least the basis for one) survived, Britain’s capacity to manage and control it was gone. What is interesting here is that the hegemon which replaced Britain – the United States – did not seize control of the system from its predecessor by force. In fact, the handover of power (though arguably a reality that was in any event irresistible) was conducted in a positively consensual manner.

As collaboration between [Britain and the US] developed [in the first half of the twentieth century], an influential strand of British political opinion came to designate the United States not just as Britain’s partner but as its natural successor to the leading role in the world system”

“These elites were motivated partly by cultural and ideological affinities, but also by the perception that both states shared an interest in promoting the conditions for a liberal international order. There [was] … sufficient common ground [between them] to make collaboration possible and to encourage the idea, particularly on the British side, of a project to transfer the role and responsibilities which Britain had once exercised as a hegemonic power to the United States. In this way, a transfer of hegemony was engineered between the two powers, which rested on collaboration rather than conflict. …. The decisive historical choice, which Britain made in 1940…was in favour of …. an open world economy – which required the acceptance of United States leadership. … The importance of being at the heart of an expanding world economy was in the end judged more important than the preservation of a regional sphere of interest
” (Gamble).

Hegemony therefore was not seen as a zero sum game. For leading members of the class that were the principal beneficiaries of the world system, the maintenance of that system was more important than which state in particular took the leading role in its management; and this assessment was shared even by those state managers who were relinquishing their own hegemonic role. This remarkably strong consensus on shared class interests is a key link between the past and present imperial systems under discussion in this paper.

Britain therefore stepped back to play a role as a component part of the US-managed system. Its defence capability was integrated with that of the US and other leading states through NATO and through collaboration on nuclear weapons systems. It maintained a leading role through the City of London in global finance and insurance. And it played a collaborative role, along with the United States, in maintaining discipline in the system, bringing states that threatened to choose divergent paths (sometimes in accordance with the wishes of their electorates) back into line. To this end, Britain involved itself in US-led coups and interventions in Iran, Indonesia and Iraq, to name a few, as well as providing military and diplomatic support to allied states within the system (Curtis:2003 & 2004). Though formal, territorial control was for almost invariably eschewed in the new system, perhaps through concerns over costs and feasibility (Gartzke), the effective control that Gallagher and Robinson identified as being the real issue, whatever particular form it took, remained the key consideration.

In the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the most notable of these interventions to take place in recent years, talk of democratisation obscured the strenuous efforts made by the occupiers to ensure that the new Iraqi state would conform to their own designs. As noted above, this involved extensive economic reforms undertaken by US diktat prior to any Iraqi elections being held. It also involved the stifling of indigenous attempts to craft democratic forms of governance in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, lest the wrong Iraqis come to power (Klein;Wearing). The attempt to create a friendly, Iraqi state, dependent on Western military power, integrated into the broader economic and political system, and with its supplies of resources secured for the benefit of that system was, in most fundamental respects, entirely consistent with the previous informal imperialism practised by Britain in the Middle East (Onley).


My focus on the commonalities and continuities between these two imperial forms should not be taken as a denial of the significant differences that are apparent between the modern world and the world that was dominated by Britain a hundred years ago. The ability of the leading states to impose themselves militarily on other parts of the world is much diminished, as is the willingness of western publics to tolerate the misdeeds of their governments. It is inconceivable, for example, that a country where hundreds of thousands protested the invasion of Iraq even before it had begun would allow its government to be complicit in anything so horrific as the Indian famines of the late Victorian era, in which Britain can reasonably be accused of having a hand in the deaths of millions. And in addition to the diminished power of the leading states, we must also recognise the significant differences in the way power is distributed in the system. As noted above, economic activity takes place beyond the reach of the state system to an unprecedented extent. This in turn accentuates the leading role in the system of the elite transnational classes above and beyond the role of states.

Nevertheless, it must also be acknowledged that the thematic threads we can trace from the history of British imperialism right up to the present day represent fundamental aspects of empire that we would prefer to believe had by now been consigned to history. Large disparities in power and wealth, the ability of a relatively narrow elite to control the major social, political and economic institutions to serve its own interest, and in doing so to frequently deny self-determination or even a decent life to large swathes of the world population are issues of such urgency and importance than no meaningful agenda of research into the international political economy can overlook them whilst retaining its credibility. Though the distinctions between previous formal empires and modern, informal imperialism are clearly important, the ties that bind them are equally worthy of our attention.


Arrighi. G., (1994), “The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times”, (London:Verso)

Brown. M., "Introduction: Informal Empire in Latin America: Culture, Commerce and Capital", Bulletin of Latin American Research, 27(1), 2008, 1-22

Chomsky. N., (1993), “Year 501: The Conquest Continues”, (London:Verso)

Curtis. M., (2003), “Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in The World”, (London:Vintage)

Curtis. M., (2004), “Unpeople: Britain's Secret Human Rights Abuses”, (London:Vintage)

Foot. P., (2005), “The Vote – How it Was Won and How it Was Undermined”, (London: Viking)

Gallagher. J., & Robinson.R., “The Imperialism of Free Trade”, The Economic History Review, 6(1), 1953, p1-15

Gamble. A., "Hegemony and Decline: Britain and the United States," in Two Hegemonies: Britain 1846-1914 and the United States 1941-2001, O'Brien.P.K & Clesse.A. (eds), (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing: 2002), p 127-140.

Gartzke.E. & Rohner.D., "To Conquer or Compel: Economic Development and Interstate Conflict", 2006

Hobsbawm. E., (1962), “The Age of Revolutions: 1789-1848”, (London:Abacus)

Hobsbawm. E., (1975), “The Age of Capital: 1848-1875”, (London:Abacus)

Hobsbawm. E., (1987), “The Age of Empire: 1875-1914”, (London:Abacus)

Hobsbawm. E., “The Development of the World Economy”, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 3, 1979, p305-318

Klein. N., (2008), “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism”, (London:Penguin)

Onley. J., “Britain’s Informal Empire in the Gulf: 1820-1971”, Journal of Social Affairs, 22(87), 2005, p29-45

Robinson. W. I., “Gramsci and Globalisation: From Nation State to Transnational Hegemony”, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 8(4), 2005, p559-574

Schama.S., (2003), “A History of Britain 2: The British Wars: 1603-1776”, (London: BBC Worldwide) – (“Schama(a)”)

Schama.S., (2003), “A History of Britain 3: The Fate of Empire: 1776-2000”, (London: BBC Worldwide) - (“Schama(b)”)

Strange. S., “The Westfailure System”, Review of International Studies, 25, 1999, p345-354

Wearing. D., "Britain's Failure In Iraq", Le Monde Diplomatique (English edition), November 2007.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Empire of Good Intentions: Part II

Continuing my notes on the evolution of the British political economy and Britain's foreign policy. Again, I'm drawing on the third volume of Simon Schama's "History of Britain", all quotes being Schama unless otherwise stated. Page references are included in the text.

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

Schama continues:

“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.

Labels: , , , ,

The Empire of Good Intentions: Part I

Continuing my notes on the evolution of the British political economy and Britain's foreign policy. Again, I'm drawing on the third volume of Simon Schama's "History of Britain" books, all quotes being Schama unless otherwise stated. Page references are included in the text.
As before, rather than just summarising the chapters in question I'm pulling out and offering my own comments on those parts pertinient 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.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as had ever been the case, British Imperialism was characterised by the chasm between the lofty claims of its advocates and the gruesome depths of its reality.

Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905, declared the Empire to be “the greatest force for good the world has ever seen”, later stating that “[t]he message is carved granite, it is hewn in the rock of doom, that our work is righteous and it shall endure” p195,197. Elsewhere, (now quoting Schama), “[p]uffers of empire, like J.R. Seeley, the Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, talked often and loudly of Britain’s civilising ‘destiny’” p195.

The Indian people’s experience of empire was a little different. “[T]he period [at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries] when [the empire’s] triumphalists were boasting most noisily of the material and medical benefits that the British had brought to the subcontinent happened also to be the decades when India experienced the most horrific death toll in its entire modern history”. The medical journal The Lancet estimated that excess deaths (above the norm) from famine and disease had been at least 19 million in the 1890s; equivalent to half the population of Britain. Estimates of the death toll of the 1899-1900 famine in western and central India ranged between 6.5 and 10 million. One quarter were claimed by the bubonic plague in 1991 alone. “An earlier famine in Orissa in 1865-6 had, according to government sources, killed fully a quarter of the population” p198-9. Schama says that the empire’s administrators “had - most of them – only the best of intentions” p194. Yes they saw a profit to be made, but also an altruistic mission to fulfil, namely the eradication of poverty disease and ignorance in its colonies. The vision was not one of imperial subjugation but of “trusteeship”. “India would one day rise and walk again on its own two feet and be judged (by the British) capable once more of governing itself” p199.

What a happy coincidence that the point where India suddenly and mysteriously mislaid its ability to govern itself (after centuries of producing a succession of the world’s leading civilisations) was the very same point in history that Britain appeared on the scene, ready to nurse the patient back to health and, again entirely coincidentally, make an enormous profit in doing so.

“There is no doubt that these ideals were sincerely held....There is equally no doubt that it seldom occurred to the governors of empire (although it certainly did to its adversaries) that their military and economic power had actually caused many, if not most, of the problems they claimed to be in India to correct” p199. Schama also notes that the “ignorance” and “arrogance” of those like Thomas Macaulay who, in the 1830s, declared the “indolent and superstitious” peoples of the Orient in need of a schooling in “European knowledge” so as to make them “capable of all the privileges of citizens” p200-1. Another word Schama might have used is ‘racist’, not least to describe Curzon’s statement, to an audience at Calcutta University, that “truth is a western concept”? p206

Macaulay’s vision, and that of his contemporaries, was of “taking ‘inert’ Asia (another favourite cliché) and injecting it with the dynamism of progress” p202. Under British paternal guidance, India would produce surpluses of cash crops for export and purchase manufactured British goods with the profits, in a cycle that would produce both economic and moral development for the colonial wards.

Though it cannot be said that Indian society was free of barbaric practices, the British never missed an opportunity, whether they understood these practices properly or otherwise, to use them as a justification for the civilising mission, not withstanding its own barbarous and far more lethal nature p210-1.

British rule over India in the early nineteenth century had, in some respects, been at its most enlightened. Administrators had shown an notable degree of sympathetic cultural engagement and thirst for knowledge, immersing themselves intellectually in their surroundings. But, alongside this, the familiar dynamics of imperialism were ever-present. Wars for ‘stability’ begat instability, which begat further wars, further militarization, and further taxation to pay for an East India Company (EIC) army that by the 1830s comprised nearly a quarter-million (mostly Indian sepoys), making it one of the biggest in the world p205.

Soon the sympathetic scholars of early imperial rule were pushed aside by the likes of James Mill, Macaulay, and Charles Trevelyan who, though they felt qualified to write about or actually govern India, evidently saw no need to engage with its culture and history in any serious way. Mill wrote his “History of British India” without ever having visited the country. What, after all, was there for the British to understand, outside of their own exalted perspectives? Macaulay proclaimed that he had “never found [anyone] distinguished by their proficiency in the eastern tongues who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia” p212

The orientalists resisted the new chauvinism for a time. The Macaulays and Trevelyans envisaged effecting their civilising mission by co-opting an upper strata of Indian society, educating it in the finer points of the white man’s culture, and then allowing that knowledge to cascade down towards the lower orders. But in this “class of person, Indian in blood and colour but English in taste, opinions morals and intellect [p212 – it is not clear who Schama is quoting at this point. Macaulay or Trevelyan presumably] the orientalists saw only the prospect of “a clique detached from the rest of Indian society ... a cultural mongrel group, with a vested interest in telling the sahibs what they wanted or needed to hear” p212. But it was the chauvinists’ mode of imperial rule that was to prevail, and the orientalists - with their hookahs, their Sanskrit, their Indian mistresses (and sometimes wives) and mixed-race children – that were to be consigned to history, soon to be followed, it was hoped, by the corrupt and effeminizing culture that they had so foolishly embraced p215.

But far from raising its subjects up from their backward squalor, the new imperial model performed what Schama describes as a “rolling economic demolition job” on Indian society p218. The loss of the EIC’s monopoly on the indigo trade devastated exporters, while the mass import of Lancashire-produced textiles did the same to Indian manufacturing industry and the local economies built around it. No pain no gain, was the considered view of the British modernizers content to see the modern industrial economy do its work. But the gains proved sparse while the pain was deep and extensive. Emily Eden, sister of the Governor-General Lord Auckland, described her journey through famine-ravaged India northwest to the Sikh court of Ranjit Singh:

“You cannot conceive the horrible sights we see, particularly children; perfect skeletons in many cases, their bones through their skin; without a rag of clothing, and utterly unlike human creatures...The women look as though they had been buried, their skulls look so dreadful” p219-20 [ emphasis in original].

Between 1846 and 1850, Charles Trevelyan presided over another civilising famine, this time in Ireland which, in those short years, “lost a quarter of its population: 1 million died of starvation or famine-related diseases, and another million turned to emigration as their only chance of survival” p220. Trevelyan viewed this as “the judgement of God on an indolent and unself-reliant people, and as God has sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated: the selfish and indolent must learn their lesson so that a new and improved state of affairs must arise” p221. It was the luck of the Irish that Trevelyan should be the Treasury official in charge of the relief effort , as well as God’s spokesperson on Earth.

Part of the problem had been a failure to predict understand or know how to deal with the fungal infection attacking the potato crop. But the real problem was that of a population forced to live on a razor’s edge of high rents for the land they worked and very low wages. They had no capacity to deal with any further hardship, let alone the devastation of the very crop that was “the beginning and the end of their diet” p225.

However, as far as Trevelyan was concerned, if the Irish could not afford to eat then this was a natural outcome of market forces, and not something to be interfered with. Trevelyan therefore opposed any attempts to stop the export of oats from starving Ireland, on the grounds that this would cause “discouragement and feeling of insecurity” to business, and thus do more harm than good p226.

As was the case with the workhouses on the mainland, the fear of the great and the good that the poor and malnourished may try to exploit them resulted in relief provisions so brutally sparse as not to attract the no doubt ever-present shirkers and freeloaders. Harry David Jones, the chairman of the board of public works, warned Trevelyan, “I believe everyone considers the government fair game to pluck as much as they can” p226. Hard-labour in exchange for a pittance of sustenance kept hundreds of thousands teetering on the edge of starvation. In one workhouse at Skibbereen, 226 inmates died between October 1846 and January 1847 p227.

As the tragedy became increasingly hard to gloss over, wealthy benefactors (including the Queen and Prince Albert) began to fund charitable efforts such as soup kitchens. But the callousness of official policy remained stubbornly intact. The public works relief projects had been so inundated that they were wound up and replaced by a new generation of workhouses. But these would be available only to those holding a quarter of an acre or less, thereby excluding “the vast majority of even the poorest” peasant families p228. The choice was no choice, give up what little you have to the landlord so as to qualify for the workhouse, or keep it and starve. Thus was Trevelyan’s social revolution brought about. Smallholders migrated to the ports or the workhouses (or were simply evicted), the landlords then demolishing the cabins in their wake as the small plots were consolidated into tenant farms. So every cloud (for the starving poor) had a silver lining (for the landlord class).

His career untroubled by the role he played in these events, Trevelyan went on to preside over the creation of what we now recognise as Whitehall: a cluster of spacious buildings around London’s Houses of Parliament in which the main departments of government would have their offices. Trevelyan argued that this was far more than a practical, administrative exercise.

“[W]e are organising, Christianising and civilising large portions of two ancient continents, Africa and Asia; and it is not right when the inhabitants of those countries come to the metropolis they should see nothing worthy of its ancient renown. Now I conceive that a plan of the kind I have sketched... would give the honour due to the focus of our liberties, of that regulated freedom which we hope will overspread the world” p233.

This new citadel of imperial government - like the communal burial bits of Ireland, and the tiny infant graves marked with shapeless rocks, marked with no epitaphs, at Connemara on the Atlantic shore p227 – would stand as the monuments to the civilising mission of Charles Trevelyan and Britain’s empire of good intentions.

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Empire of Liberty

Continuing my notes on the evolution of the poltical economy of Britain, and of British foreign policy, drawn from Simon Schama's “A History of Britain 2: The British Wars, 1603 – 1776”. This time, its the Atlantic slave trade, worldwide war with France, the loss of the American colonies, and the conquest of India


British imperial expansion in the eighteenth century was accompanied by odes to liberty, progress and patriotism. Those who drove the expansion pictured themselves in a narrative of British history that told of the forward march of freedom; Alfred, Elizabeth I, even Cromwell, and now themselves. Magna Carta, the 1688 revolution and the 1689 Bill of Rights were all wheeled out and invoked as symbols of a Britain that had freed itself from European-style (and, of course, Catholic) despotism.

“The connection between the championship of liberty at home and the creation of a maritime, commercial empire overseas was at the heart of the new, the first truly British, patriotism”.

Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke, had based his ‘Patriot King’, published in 1738 as vocational guidance for Frederick, Prince of Wales, on this same narrative. Alfred, ‘Guardian of liberty’ and originator of trial by jury (actually, he wasn’t) would be the model for the next king, though in the event, Frederick was to die before he reached the throne.

The cognitive dissonance required to maintain the oxymoronic concept of an Empire of Liberty was on full display in this quote from Bolingbroke:

“The Empire of the Seas is ours; we have been many Ages in Possession of it; we have had many Sea-Fights, at a vast effusion of Blood and Expense of Treasure to preserve it and preserve it we still must, at all Risks and Events if we have a Mind to preserve ourselves”

Offence is defence, theft justified by the sacrifices of the thief, and domination over others nothing more than self-preservation. This was the base metal of self-interest alchemised into golden noble virtue.

Like today’s right-wing ‘Libertarians’, many of the eighteenth century’s champions of freedom were thinking of their own liberty rather more than of liberty as a universal right and principle. The oligarchs who saw themselves as the ‘Heart Blood’ of the nation “believed themselves tyrannized by the arbitrary powers of Walpole’s excisemen, and ... looked to the promotion of blue-water empire to fulfil their partnership between trade and freedom. So when they spoke of liberty they meant, among other enterprises, the liberty to buy and sell slaves”.

Empire of slaves

The theory of the imperialists was that by eschewing direct territorial conquest, a British imperial despotism could be avoided. Britain would exert no more than the minimum level of power required to operate a global commercial concern wherein the colonies would provide the raw materials and the homeland manufactured goods in an “endlessly benevolent cycle of mutual self-improvement”. But by the end of the eighteenth century “[i]nstead of an empire of farmers and traders the British Empire was, overwhelmingly, an empire of soldiers” ruling over “a million Caribbean slaves and at least 50 million inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent”.

The Empire of Liberty’s “prosperity depended on the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Africans” who, when they fought for their own liberty, as did the Antiguan rebels of 1776, were “publicly burnt alive...broken on the wheel...gibbeted alive...mutilated”, castrated or flogged “til they are Raw, some put on their skins Pepper and salt to make them smart” says a contemporaneous source quoted by Schama.

“The irony that an empire so noisily advertised as an empire of free Britons should depend on the most brutal coercion of enslaved Africans is not just an academic paradox. It was the condition of the empire’s success, its original sin: a stain that no amount of righteous self-congratulation at its eventual abolition can altogether wash away”

The raw materials provided by the colonies were commodities such as tobacco, tea, chocolate, coffee and sugar, creating and satisfying new demands at home.

“As early as 1655, three years after [the] first coffee house opened in London, Barbados was shipping 7,787 tons of sugar back to England, and there were already 20,000 slaves on the island against 23,000 whites, well over half of whom were probably indentured servants” helping to make the plantation owners “by far the richest men in British America”. “It was precisely between 1640 and 1660, when the rhetoric of liberty was being most noisily shouted at home, that the slave economy was being created in the Caribbean”.

By 1700 there were 50,000 slaves on Barbados, with the white indentured labourers almost gone. By 1800 there were 70,000, and another 400,000 on Jamaica.

Excusing British slavery by pointing to the social mores of the time is by no means an adequate response. As has been noted, liberty was far from an alien concept; talk of it filled the political air. And the specific moral abhorrence of slavery was not a thought that had simply failed to occur to the backwardly innocent men of the time. The Puritan Richard Baxter asked, in 1673, “How cursed a crime is it to equal men to beasts. Is this not your practice? Do you not buy them and use them merely as you do horses to labour for your commodity...Do you not see how you reproach and condemn yourselves while you vilify them all as savages?”. A time-traveller from the early twenty-first century who encountered the slave-drivers of the era could scarcely have put it better. Such arguments were known, understood, and consciously rejected.

“In the century and a half of the slave trade, from the 1650s to 1807, between three and four million Africans were transported out of their homelands to the New World in British ships”, accounting for about a third of those abducted and sold by all European nations involved. A million and a half of the British slaves died en route across the Atlantic. While it is true that the Europeans did not invent West African slavery, the demand they provided certainly grew and expanded the practice, driving its horrors deep into the African interior.

The slaves were denied every last vestige of their humanity by traders, their private parts inspected closely for signs of yaws prior to purchase, their breast our shoulder then branded by the initial of the ship that would take them across the ocean. Many attempted suicide rather than face the hell of the plantation. One slave trader spoke of sharks following the ships all the way from West Africa to the Caribbean, feasting on the suicides and the corpses pitched over the side. Those who remained on board were crammed in cheek-by-jowl and chained together, malnourished, forced to fester in each other’s filth, driven slowly mad by dehydration and dysentery.

One might almost say that it was the unlucky ones who survived the “middle passage” and made it to the West Indies. One fifth of slave children born on the plantation were dead before their second birthday. If they lived to six or seven they were sent out to work. Eighty per cent of slaves worked seventy to eighty hour weeks. The work, especially in the mill and the boiling house, was not only back-breaking but highly dangerous. Simply being a slave was lethal in itself, but they cost sufficiently little to purchase for their deaths not to pose a serious economic problem. Women bore a particularly harsh burden, subjected as they were to the “habitual sexual aggression” of their owners. Pregnant women were forced to continue working right up til the point of delivery. In spite of all this, the slaves resisted whenever and however they could, either in outright rebellions as in Antigua in the 1720s and 1730s and Jamaica mid-century, or in simply preserving their own cultures against all the odds. But this is another story.

“By the middle of the eighteenth century, the mercantile ‘empire of liberty’ was critically dependent or its fortune on the economic universe made from slavery”. Britain’s single most valuable import was the sugar produced by three quarters of a million West Indian slaves, generating huge personal fortunes and general enrichment which was in turn to transform both the economy and British society. The ports of Bristol and Liverpool developed and expanded significantly as a direct result of the transatlantic trade. The great library at All Soul’s College, Oxford was built thanks to a donation from the Codmingtons of Barbados. The banking houses of Barclays and Lloyds grew rich, and reinvested in manufacturing. And the nouveaux riches of the trade were now throwing their weight around in Westminster and the City of London. Their liberty, at least, had been greatly enhanced.

World War

The greatest threat to the serene continuation of these happy arrangements came from – where else? – France. The plantation plutocrats may have aroused little sympathy with their complaints about the rising cost of slaves and the falling price of sugar, but when they complained about the French they were sure of an audience.

The dynastic links of the Bourbon royal houses meant that the French could operate in the Western Hemisphere free from harassment from the Spanish coastguard, whose attentions had been a source of consternation to British patriots for some years. The French made inroads into the markets of West Africa, provided tough competition for the British Caribbean plantations from their own colonies such as St Domingue (later Haiti) and began to interfere in the affairs of India, to which the British East India Company took principled exception, waging war to expel its new competitors.

In North America, the population of the British colonies now exceeded that of Britain itself, but the westward expansion seen by the colonists as their natural right was blocked by French territorial acquisitions, which also threatened their hold over trade in fish and furs.

Skirmishes in Ohio in which the French prevailed (involving, amongst others, one George Washington) were the prelude to worldwide war. Prussia was subsidised to pin the French down in Europe, starving it of men and resources that might otherwise have been deployed in the theatres of India, West Africa, the Caribbean or North America, while the Royal Navy guarded the British coast and harassed the French in the Mediterranean and Atlantic.

But while Robert Clive prevailed in Bengal (more of him presently), Britain initially floundered elsewhere. In 1757, William Pitt was brought in to run the government, and instantly set about turning the situation around. Money and resources were thrown into the war effort, particularly in North America, where complacent and overbearing generals were replaced with pragmatists who were more disposed to take a collaborative approach with the local militia. £200,000 was given annually to Frederick the Great to keep French forces in Europe occupied. The 1758 military budget was a hitherto inconceivable £12.5m; half-borrowed and half-taxed. This bought Britain 120-130,000 regular and irregular troops, a 70,000-man Navy and, ultimately, victory. The French lost imperial footholds in India, the Caribbean, West Africa, and finally Canada in 1760.

Benjamin Franklin was overjoyed by the conquest of Canada, believing that it cleared the way for a British-American Empire of Liberty to expand westward, making itself “broad and strong enough to support the greatest political structure human wisdom ever yet erected”. So how did Franklin get from there to signing the declaration of independence in 17 years?

Parting of the Ways

Peace with France was settled with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, leaving Britain the pre-eminent world power. But at a cost. The Treasury was in debt, credit was tight due to a Dutch banking crisis, and half the army was demobilised and in need of work just as labour-intensive industry was being scaled back to pre-war levels. The economic situation was already causing political instability, as harvests failed and prices rose, so more domestic taxation was not an attractive option.

It was in this context that the management of the American colonies was reappraised and a new approach decided upon. First, the colonies must not develop a manufacturing industry that might compete with Britain’s. Economic relations must remain dependent. Secondly, to limit the costs of defending the colonies, westward expansion must halt, thus securing the goodwill of the indigenous peoples, many of whom had sided with the French during the war. Third, the colonists, who had after all benefitted from Britain’s ‘vast effusion of Blood and Expense of Treasure’ in the war effort, would henceforth have to pay for their own defence. Through taxes.

The colonists did not take kindly at all to this. The traders resented the excise regime, while highly literate Boston, with its lively and intimate political culture, took the 1765 Stamp Act’s tax on paper as a personal affront. Rioting and general unrest ensued. The Act was repealed after fierce debate in the House of Commons, but by that stage Britain’s standing in the colonies was at an altogether new low.

The duties regime continued to grow - repeal of the Stamp Act notwithstanding – and now became increasingly militarised. The colonists reacted with import boycotts, violent unrest, and general disobedience and protest. Lord North’s incoming administration of 1770 repealed most of the objectionable duties but, fatefully, retained one, that on tea.

The international trading relationship envisaged by the founders of the East India Company (hereafter “EIC”) in 1600 had not developed according to plan. India’s own manufactured goods were quite sophisticated enough, a good deal more so that Britain’s in fact, and no inferior British imports were required. Instead, India exported its textiles to England, taking only silver in return. The dazzling ‘calicoes’ arrived in vast quantities (more on this later) causing English manufacturers to beg for protection from the competition. The company therefore switched to shipping tea, but was undercut in that market by Dutch traders. EIC stock began to collapse, with huge debts to the government piling up for unpaid customs and military protection. The solution was to eliminate tea duties in England, thus slashing the price and making the product more competitive. The duties would however remain in the colonies, as the assertion of London’s sovereign right to levy taxes in its Empire. It was a right not recognised in Boston. Once again, Americans were being taxed without the consent of their popular assemblies. It led to the “Boston Tea Party” where imported tea stocks were smashed and dumped in the harbour by a mob dressed, with notable lack of self-awareness, as native Americans, complete with blacked-up faces. But more than this, it was anger at Britain’s response to these events – the military occupation of Boston and the closing down of its port until losses were compensated – that lit the revolutionary spark.

Even during the war, demands for outright American independence were not inevitable. At least at first, the colonists sought autonomy within the empire in accordance with the patriotic myth of English-British history as a narrative of liberty unfolding. They found that the myth was just that. George III and his government rejected all demands, expecting nothing less than total surrender and obedience. It was Britain’s failure to live up to the patriotic mythology that resulted in its loss of the American colonies and with them much of the advantage gained in the Seven Years War with France.

Franklin took the view that a country’s fortunes depended on things like geography, population and social structure; a novel perspective in those times. For him, it was clear that America had far greater natural endowments than the homeland, and that London’s treating its American colonies as subjects rather than partners, and any divorce that ensued, would ultimately be its own loss. This view was, it must be said, nothing if not prescient.

Empire of Plunder

The claimed ideals of the Empire of Liberty were being betrayed on both side of the compass. The EIC was being reigned-in by a London establishment that was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with its violent, corrupt excesses. Edmund Burke accused the company of having pillaged a proud civilisation on the false pretext of securing free trade: “every rupee of profit made by an Englishman is lost forever to India”.

The EIC’s enterprise had originally been aimed at what is now Indonesia but, with its way blocked by the Dutch and Portuguese, it sought footholds in India instead, securing its first licenses to trade from the Mughal Emperor Jahangir at the port of Surat in 1608.

By the end of the seventeenth century, the company controlled Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, while at the same time, Mughal India was becoming increasingly vulnerable to external pressures. The subcontinent was run on a decentralised basis, with local ‘nawabs’ operating (and skimming off) a land tax system which sent money to the imperial court. But as Delhi was increasingly subjected to successful raids by Afghan and Persian armies, local rulers looked to build up their own independent means as insurance against the erosion of the central state’s credibility. It was at this point that the nawabs were coming to the attentions of European traders seeking advantages and ways into the Indian markets.

One of those traders was Robert Clive who, as a teenager, had made his name in his home town of Market Drayton running a protection racket as the head of the local gang. By the age of twenty-five, his adventurism as an EIC military officer had resulted in the installation of a friendly nawab in south eastern India, thwarting French attempts to do the same.

In 1757, Clive was sent north to deal with an attempt by the young nawab of Bengal to roll back European privileges. The Battle of Plassey was largely won through intrigue and bribery as the nawabs' lieutenants saw the writing on the wall and switched sides. A quarter of a million pounds was extorted from the Bengali coffers by Clive’s forces, and a personal revenue territory bestowed on Clive himself, making him one of Britain’s richest men.

But there was a bigger issue at stake here, even than the healthy state of Clive’s bank balance. In 1758, Clive told the EIC directors that “such an opportunity [as in Bengal] can never again be expected for the aggrandisement of the Company”. Britain became increasingly involved in the government of the region, installing and deposing nawabs at will, collecting and demanding immunity from taxes. A business empire was turning into a military empire, and now turning its gaze up the Ganges, into the weakening heart of Mughal India, towards Delhi.

While London fretted about the costs of defending these new acquisitions, the likes of Clive enjoyed the bounty. “[T]hey began to spend freely in Britain itself, buying country houses and sometimes, as at Sezincote in Gloucestershire, hiring architects to give them the air of an Indian palace. They began to throw their weight around in London and their money at Parliamentary seats. As the ‘nababs’, they displaced the West Indian planters as the most envied and detested plutocrats of the age”.

While they bathed in their new-found wealth, the nababs' means of enrichment was the source of misery for Bengalis. The tax regime had become so onerous that, when the monsoons failed in 1769 and 1770, the peasant farmers had neither savings nor productive capital to see them through. Famine was the result, and not for the last time in British India.

Clive’s huge personality sucked the popular understanding of events into orbit around him, thus obscuring less superficial interpretations of what had gone wrong. Schama’s next observation is directly analogous to the modern focus on the shortcomings of the George W Bush regime, as opposed to the deeper assumptions of the imperial tradition that produced his Presidency.

“Paradoxically, Clive’s personal notoriety spared the logic of his interventionist imperialism from the scepticism it deserved. For if, somehow, with the best will in the world, British government in Bengal had failed to bring about general peace and prosperity, it could only be because wicked men, selfish men, perhaps led astray by greedy opportunist natives, had abused their trust in order to line their pockets. The proper correction was not to examine the assumptions behind the proposition, but merely to find the right men and the right measures”.

Warren Hastings, the new Governor-General of Bengal, had much less autonomy than Clive. He ruled in tandem with a five man council on which he was but one voice, the other four being appointed by the crown and the company. It was Hastings that ushered in the era of the ‘White Mughals’, taking a greater interest in the native religions, cultures and languages. This was so as to effect a more sympathetic and benevolent, and thus a more effective rule. But it was also born of a degree of respect and admiration for Indian civilisation (albeit not as an equal to that of Britain).

Hastings however was recalled to London for impeachment proceedings (though subsequently acquitted). His replacement, Cornwalis, sought to run British India differently; now as a replica of the English rural hierarchy. The local Indian tax collectors were to become the local gentry: property owners extracting rents from tenant farmers and providing tax revenue to a state managed by British courts and military muscle.

But the stability on which this new order depended was hard to maintain. War with various Indian princes proved costly, though Tipu Sultan of Mysore, the greatest challenge to British rule in India at that time, was ultimately defeated. For plotting to free his domain of the British yoke, in collaboration with Bonaparte’s France, Tipu Sultan’s capital was sacked and his court looted. The armies of the new Governor-General, Wellesley, now dominated the scene. Britain prevailed over the entire subcontinent. By 1804, it ruled with an army of 192,000 – as large as many of those in Europe. Clive had only ever commanded 5,000.

All this was of course justified as defence against the aggression of others, be it France or, ludicrously, the Indians themselves. And every extension of British power, so justified, preceded a new extension, to be justified in the same way. The more Britain defended its interests, the bigger its interests became. So it was that the Empire of Liberty in the imagination of the patriots transformed itself into the empire of coercion and plunder of the historical record.

Labels: , , ,