A British expert in South Asian politics tackles the history of Britain’s conquest of India.
As Wilson (History/King’s Coll. London) shows, while India may have been subdued, it was never really conquered. A people who existed in an age of negotiation and open discussion would gladly have adapted to the East India Company’s needs, as long as it suited them. India was a culture of diverse societies. The Mughals fostered harmony, not homogeneity, were careful not to impose the will of a centralized state, and felt that enemies could always become friends. The British were really policemen and railroad builders. Rather than intending to settle the subcontinent, they were there simply to make money. Though the East India Company was interested in trade only, not political power, they still ruled and did so without engaging citizens. They made paper a surrogate for authority, reducing lives to lines in an account. It was not until Queen Victoria was named Empress in 1876 that India was actually united with England. Wisely, Wilson focuses on the view from the Indian side rather than that of the Raj, and he carefully and thoroughly describes the people of India, their ties to Persia, and their social and political lives. The history before the English is intriguing, as towns and regions were separate but equal. Though enlightening and clearly written, the detail-dense narrative would be a great deal easier to follow with maps showing the political changes during the time period. Wilson deals forcefully with those who supposedly “formed” India, including Thomas Macaulay, who spent three years in India in the 1830s writing a code of penal law without ever engaging a local; Robert Clive, aka Clive of India, who served as commander in chief of British India; and Warren Hastings, the head of the Supreme Council of Bengal in the 1770s and ’80s.
A rich, somewhat overlong history that should prove fascinating for students of Indian history.