An odd mix of conversational commentary and detailed historical documentation that presents an account of burgeoning British imperialism in India.
One might wonder how theoretical physicist, mountain climber, and science writer Bernstein (Cranks, Quarks and the Cosmos, 1992, etc.) came to write an 18th-century colonial history. His prologue informs the reader that he stumbled across Hastings’ story while reading regional history in preparation for a trip to (and a subsequent New Yorker story about) mountain climbing in Tibet. Hastings spent most of his life, from his teens on, employed by the British East India Company, rising through its ranks and finally achieving the rank of Governor-General of India. At the pinnacle of his power, he sponsored the development of the first Grammar of the Bengal Language and the first translation into English of the Bhagavadgita. After 12 years as Governor-General, however, he was recalled to Britain in disgrace to face impeachment charges for bribery, corruption, and oppression of the Indian people. The tension generated by these seemingly contradictory historical views of Hastings drives Bernstein’s narrative, which is loaded with excerpts from primary-source documents. The best sections harness these sources to present sparkling and insightful profiles of peripheral figures (such as novelist Fanny Burney). More often, however, these sources strain against the weight of anachronistic colonial and parliamentary contexts. Bernstein’s conversational prose avoids deep analysis of these complex contexts by adopting an apologist’s stance for Hastings—giving the story a novelistic (rather than a historic) feel.
Bernstein’s decision to filter the broader history of the region through the prism of Hastings’ life results in a narrative that lacks objectivity and strains beneath the weight of extensive documentation, but it is still interesting for its entertaining portraits of period figures. (21 b&w photos)