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
When 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.
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.”
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.
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.