With Shashi Tharoor’s An Era of Darkness, the British Empire’s Indictment Continues

Combined with the meanness of a pedlar with the profligacy of a pirate… Thus it was (that) they united the mock majesty of a bloody scepter with the little traffic of a merchant’s counting house, wielding a truncheon with one hand and picking a pocket with the other 

    – Richard Sheridan

 

Book Cover -An Era of DarknessWhen a 23-year United Nations’ veteran with experience at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and UN for Peacekeeping writes about the colonial hegemony of England, how could you refuse? After his famous Oxford Union debate questioning Britain’s reparative responsibility towards ‘her former colonies’ went viral, Shashi Tharoor had publishers clamoring for a more comprehensive exposition. An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India addresses Britain’s ‘colonial amnesia’ with a perspective-laden history lesson for those unfamiliar with British colonialism and India’s struggle for independence. For those who are familiar with Indian history, the narrative is a trudge through known facts while waiting for Tharoor’s eloquent gems.

 

Thomas Roe
Thomas Roe

Writing as an “Indian of 2016 about the India of two centuries ago and less, animated by a sense of belonging morally and geographically to the land that was once so tragically oppressed by the Raj”, Tharoor meticulously breaks down the British Empire’s arrival and conquest of India, including its barbaric practices against ‘uncivilized’ Indians which were frequently rationalized with the stereotypical stiff upper lip, and the ‘consequences of the Empire’ in post-colonial India. Beginning in 1615 with the arrival of the first British ambassador, Sir Thomas Roe, appearing in Jehangir’s royal court, the author traces the British Empire which had its precursor in the East India Company’s (EIC) trade expansion and the decidedly deliberate ‘looting of India.’ EIC’s expansion was ably supported by British soldiers who destroyed Indian looms and have even been alleged to “break the thumbs of some Bengali weavers, so they could not ply their craft.” While the 1857 Indian mutiny ensured the formal control of the British Crown, imperialist policies began as early as the late 18th century when the East India Company established ‘Mayor’s Courts’ in 1726. However, the supposed ‘rule of law’ established during colonial India refused to accommodate Lord Ripon’s attempt to “allow Indian judges to try British defendants,”

 

Tharoor systematically argues against British claims of providing India with civilizational tools of education and democracy even as ‘the destruction of India’s thriving manufacturing industries’ laid the foundations of the United Kingdom’s thriving industrial development (Fig. 1). Economist Utsa Patnaik asserts that “between 1765 and 1938, the drain amounted to 9.2 trillion pounds ($45 trillion).” Tharoor also examines Empiric claims of enabling India’s political unity in detail including British expropriation of Indian royal authority and Lord Cornwallis’ ‘Permanent Settlement’ (1793) for 90% revenue from land taxation which exploited village communities in Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa similar to the haciendas in Latin America. Neither is he convinced that British parliamentary democracy is suited for contemporary India which he feels “has created a unique breed of legislator largely unqualified to legislate.” 

Share of World GDP (0 - 1998 A.D.)
Fig. 1: Share of World GDP – United Kingdom vs India
Source: Angus Maddison – The World Economy

 

Of course, the fairly exhaustive examination of British colonialism does not fail to ponder over the ‘British Colonial Holocaust’ claimed by researchers to be a direct result of the institutional failure of Winston Churchill’s policies during the devastation of the 1943 Bengal famine causing the death of nearly 3 million people. Even Leo Amery, appointed Churchill’s Secretary of State for India in 1940, recorded Churchill’s famous ‘breeding like rabbits‘ quote when he pushed the British Prime Minister to send food supplies to Bengal.

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According to Tharoor, while the British Empire had forgotten India’s centuries-old historical legacy of cultural assimilation and the consequential embracing of English during its freedom struggle, Britain’s culpability in India’s intellectual subordination is evident in the nation’s 16% literacy at independence. Tharoor asserts that “it is striking that a civilization that had invented the zero, that spawned Aryabhata (who anticipated Galileo, Copernicus, and Kepler by several centuries, and with greater precision), and Susruta (the father of modern surgery had so little to show by way of Indian scientific and technological innovation even under the supposedly benign and stable conditions of Pax Britannica.” 

 

Even as Britain continues its frequent ‘self-exculpation’, barbaric colonial practices have been par for the course in enlightened despotism’ around the world. But the British Empire’s indictment came as early as 1839 when writer and spiritualist William Howitt said, “The scene of exaction, rapacity, and plunder that India became in our hands, and that upon the whole body of the population, forms one of the most disgraceful portions of human history.’ And as Horace Walpole sneered in 1790, “What is England now? A sink of Indian wealth”. Of course, the Kohinoor remains a British Crown Jewel to this day. Whether or not the historical territory of British colonialism in India is familiar to you, An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India is a shining example of an Indian’s perspective of colonialism.

 

Book Review – Lizzie Collingham’s The Hungry Empire

It would be an understatement to say that the British Empire in its heyday was an engine of gluttony. But that is the story that Lizzie Collingham wants to tell in her book, The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World. The Empire changed the world. There are arguments to both sides of the Empire’s deeds, that it did good is commendable, but the bad it did against the good is even more reproachable. 

Trade was the first area through which the Empire propelled its power. A small trading company that went on to rule more than half the world and engineered the largest empire in history. From the 16th and 18th centuries, trading became the driving force behind innovation, both political and economic. This trade disrupted the life-cycles of many cultures and countries that eventually became part of the Empire. 

This is what Collingham depicts in her enchanting history. The subject of this history is food. Food that drove trade and “helped to turn the wheels of commerce” (pg. xvi). Food that bolstered progress. However, with such progress, destruction went hand in hand. British traders settled in far off corners of the world for food, disrupting local cultures, and the people, even going so far as to annihilate entire native populations.

 

The food web that was woven by … [these developments] … created a truly global system that connected all five inhabited continents, drawing in even the most isolated and far-flung corners of the planet.

 

In this way, Britain changed the way the world tasted food. And yet, it should be noted that food was still just one aspect of commerce that British merchants were concentrating on. Indeed, with most histories “focus is usually on the story of maritime exploration and the quest for spices” (pg. 5). Among other things, Britain also traded in textiles, spices, tin, rubber, wood, dyes, etc. But food was important simply because it was a basic necessity that superseded all others; and trade thrived around food. 

The book starts with “fish day on the Mary Rose.” Salt cod was never popular in English cuisine, but it lasted long and could be used for long sea journeys. It laid the foundation of English expansion. The ship Mary Rose itself became a shipwreck that, upon its rediscovery, became one of the best artefacts for historians. There was evidence in the shipwreck of the presence of beef, pork, and salt cod, and other things that could last for long without spoiling and becoming inedible.

“Tea was the last of the new colonial groceries to arrive on the English market (pg. 79).” It was rare and expensive, and came to London through the Dutch East India Company. As Collingham writes, sugar was popular with the English and led to the sweetening of tea overtime. 

 

Collingham writes fluidly, without breaking her tone. Her main prerogative is getting the facts straight and putting them down in front of the reader. The pieces fall into place themselves. It is a fairly straightforward narrative that she has established. The author also supplies actual illustrations and colour plates depicting the history of food-making in the world. These illustrations complement the narrative easily.

Another thing of note is the recipes peppered throughout the book. These range from archaic recipes taken from old books that are still used in the kitchen today to authentic recipes passed down through families and friends across generations. 

 

Even from the start, despite all the history provided in abundance, there really ever was only one topic of focus under discussion in this book: food. There are nuggets of information, both fascinating and unheard of at the same time. For example, the medieval cosmic view was that black was the colour of melancholy so it was not used in food. A combination of ginger and saffron was used because it was yellowish in colour and that meant the nourishing energy of the sun. But, this world view changed with the arrival of black pepper. Collingham helps the reader wade through this sea of history without any problems whatsoever. 

Collingham is clearly fascinated by the effect the British Empire has had on the culinary arts and trade across the world. Sometimes, this fascination seems a bit laudatory, as if she can’t help admiring it. She doesn’t shy away from the fact that the Empire encouraged slavery or colonized countries like India, or that it appropriated cultures, even destroyed them. But she doesn’t openly criticize the actions of the Empire to a large extent. Since the topic is food, Collingham concentrates on that; sometimes to the detriment of any timely criticism.

The book is highly readable as an introduction to the past based on what is on your dinner plate.

 

 

Cover Image: AshPrad