The British in India: Gilmour's book typifies revisionist history writing

Photo: Wikimedia commons
The perspective adopted by the author in this very well-researched book is indicated by its subtitle. The word “conquest” does not feature in it. Nor does the conquest of India by the British feature prominently in the narrative. Yet the fact of the matter is that the British were in India because they conquered India through a series of very violent wars. And they maintained their position of dominance in India through violence and force. The lives of privilege and luxury that most Britons in India enjoyed — the substance of Gilmour’s book — were possible because they were conquerors who treated Indians as subjects and inferiors. The British also believed that they were in India to stay for an indefinite period of time. The “illusion of permanence”, to use the memorable phrase coined by the historian Francis Hutchins, was an integral part of the physical and mental landscape of those who made and inhabited the British Empire in India.


Gilmour writes in the introduction that his “work is primarily... about individuals”. And he cites in his own support the dictum of his old teacher in Oxford, the great historian Richard Cobb, that history is about human relationships. But, as Gilmour himself will admit, individuals do not live and function in a vacuum. The relationships that Cobb unravelled among the common people of Paris and elsewhere in France were influenced by the political, social and economic forces that swept France from 1789 onwards. Cobb looked at death, the terror, the formation of people’s armies, among other things, and placed human relationships within this great and overwhelming churn. In India under British rule, no Briton from the Viceroy to the subaltern was outside the influence of the overarching fact that the firangi in India was a dominant master race and that the ultimate sanction of this dominance was force and violence. It is this context that Gilmour misses or rather underplays.


THE BRITISH IN INDIA THREE CENTURIES OF AMBITION AND EXPERIENCE Author: David Gilmour Publisher: Allen Lane Pages: 640 Price: Rs 999
The British came to India to trade, as merchants belonging to the English East India Company, and as traders and businessmen they wanted to make money — “as businessmen do everywhere”, Gilmour writes. But do traders and merchants everywhere loot and plunder? The activities of the East India Company, fully supported and sanctioned by the British government, is the story of loot and plunder. And when the Company did not loot it conducted business on extremely favourable terms set by itself by using its political power to establish a monopsony. Through this process they devastated the lives of Indian weavers and other artisans. The loot and plunder enabled otherwise unemployable young Britons to not only live in India in some luxury but also to return “home” as fabulously wealthy individuals. The English language, more than English historians, recognised this process by words and expressions such as “nabob” and “shaking the pagoda tree”.


The British were an alien presence in India and an almost unbridgeable gulf separated them from the Indians. Gilmour reconstructs the lives of the Britons in India with loving detail but one misses the distance that separated the rulers from the ruled. It is Gilmour’s claim that he is writing a more layered and complex history in which all British individuals cannot be tarred with the same brush. In his view, all Britons in India were not racists or wicked people. Some of them, in spite of being imperialists or being implicated in acts of imperial conquest and empire building, were committed to doing good, to reforming India. Even imperialists and imperialism, Gilmour believes, had their redeeming sides. There is something seemingly self-evident about all this. There is also confusion about different levels of history and history writing.


What drove British rule in India was neither reform nor do-gooding. What drove it was economic exploitation — a process through which by 1900 India, the so-called brightest jewel in the British Crown, was the poorest country in the world. Indeed, India was the poorest precisely because it was the brightest jewel. There surely were Britons in India who were good people — kind, humane, affectionate, observant and a few even self-conscious of their own anomalous position in India — but this cannot and should not be confused with the overall nature and character of British rule in India and why the British, including all the good human beings that Gilmour brings to light, were in India.


There is another problem with the individual-centric approach adopted by Gilmour. How many of the many thousands of Britons who were in India has Gilmour been able to access in spite of his diligent archival work? The answer, he himself will admit, is relatively few. Is that adequate for a micro-level and individual-centric analysis/narrative?


Gilmour harks back to Cobb as an exemplar. But the individual-centric approach was pioneered by Lewis Namier. The latter’s strength was that he took a small slice of history and society — the House of Commons in the reign of George III — and then looked at the individuals involved by taking the biographical approach. Within these constraints, it worked but only to a limited extent. Gilmour in contrast looks at a vast span of history inhabited by thousands of individuals; but because of the nature of the archives and the documentation, he looks at only a small proportion of the individuals involved. What is the logic behind the assumption that the individuals Gilmour has been able to access are in any way representative?


Gilmour’s book is an exercise in revisionist history writing — the attempt to show that British rule in India was not all that bad. This is the imperialist speaking sotto voce. David Gilmour will forgive me if, my Oxford education notwithstanding or perhaps because of it, I can read his book with a wry smile and a sense of I have heard it all before. The reviewer is professor of history and chancellor, Ashoka University

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel