RAJ: The Making and Unmaking of British India by Lawrence James

RAJ: The Making and Unmaking of British India

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A pungent epic history of two lands locked in imperial embrace and disdain for two centuries, from British historian and biographer James (The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, 1996; The Golden Warrior, 1993, etc.). From the victory of East India Company representative Robert Clive at Plassey in 1757 to the bloody partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, Britain struggled with contradictory emotions aroused by her entry into and withdrawal from the subcontinent. Winston Churchill's opinion that the Raj was the ""finest achievement"" of his countrymen was not universally held even in Britain, as evidenced by periodic rancorous parliamentary debates over the corruption and abuse of force sometimes employed in India by the East India Company and, later, the Crown's viceroys and generals. Indisputably, however, India ""underpinned Britain's status as a global power and provided it with markets, prestige and muscle,"" according to James. Neither arch-imperialist nor postcolonial critic, the author sees the Raj as a period governed by essentially idealistic if paternalistic rulers who left an indelible imprint on India and Pakistan. James has mastered an astonishingly large body of material, encompassing subjects as various as the social life of sahibs and memsahibs; the impact of India's newspapers on local opinion; and the non-battlefield dangers faced by British soldiers (e.g., venereal disease). He can be enjoyable to read even when not entirely fair, as when he lashes out at Lady Mountbatten as a ""jejune socialite."" James numbers India's infrastructure, Western style of education, and enduring commitment to democracy among the positive legacies of British rule. Nevertheless, many readers, noting James's admission that Britain sometimes treated its subjects in a racist, brutal manner, will conclude that any rule maintained by force has its limits as a benign influence. An intelligent general history of the former jewel in Britain's crown, with assiduous attention to the complications it created for ruler and ruled alike.

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0312263821
Page count: 736pp
Publisher: St. Martin's