The Chaos of Empire: The British Raj and the Conquest of India 2016. Jon Wilson. Publisher: Public Affairs 586 pp. $18.56
Written history has a way of neatly packaging its chapters for convenience and understanding. And so you have the history of the Mughals, the history of the Greeks, the history of the Indus Civilization, and so on. In such a reading you get a good understanding of the central tenets of the period, its peoples, culture, and its government. However the unfortunate by-product of this approach is that it misleads us into believing that there is usually some grand design and purpose behind the rise and fall of empires. It was as if a central body had a vision that precisely plotted the path that regimes took and somehow ceased to exist due to natural calamity or war.
The reality of human development in societies, unfortunately, mirrors the development of individual human beings—a combination of chance and effort occasionally thwarted, enhanced, or modified by the vagaries of the forces of nature beyond oneself. And so it was with the development of the greatest of modern Empires, especially in her Crown Jewel, argues Jon Wilson in the The Chaos of Empire. The British held sway over a wide swath of the Indian subcontinent, not from some grand plan that emanated from Westminster, but from a series of events that emanated from the everyday actions of human beings, both native and British. It was a messy marriage of conflict, violence, desire, greed, jealousy, and occasionally good intention, disrupted by larger forces far removed from local events. There was no grand British plan executed to suit the realities of everyday Indian life—rather everyday events coalesced into the outlines of an administration. This revisionist history debunks the notion of a Raj that was glamorous and orderly, its bureaucratic institutions created to serve the needs of the people it ruled.
Wilson’s research to support his thesis is both exhaustive and interesting. The book is a compilation of anecdotes used to support the notion that British policy making was often a chaotic result of circumstance. Wilson traces the history of the Raj from the early days of the East India Company to the final carnage of partition, viewed through the prism of specific events and people. In this progression we read about the life of Katherine Cooke, the daughter of a lower-middle-class army captain and military engineer stationed in Bengal in the early 1700s. Katherine’s life is replete with tragedy and pain as she crisscrosses India caught in a complex series of events involving the British, the Portugese, the Marathas, the Mughals, and finally the state of Atingal in the deep south in present day Kerala. In the span of a decade, she was captured, imprisoned, and released, lost three husbands, the last two to firepower and treachery and finally went back to Britain to spend the last days of her life in the Oxfordshire village of Nuffield. Her story is a reflection of the early days of the Raj as the East India Company desperately sought to establish its supremacy through violence and diplomacy, filled with anxiety and fear in an alien land. The decisions they took reflected the realities on the ground, in which survival was often the main motivation and decisions, both military and strategic, had to be made by Britons acting in a purely tactical fashion.
The other great British invention was its aptitude for record keeping. In fact today’s big data analysts have much to thank the British for their meticulous, and if one were uncharitable, their almost paranoid obsession with documenting every small detail. The utilitarian John Sturn Mill, Examiner of Indian Correspondence at the Company, wrote that “the great success of our Indian administration” was because it was “carried on in writing.” Wilson argues that the reality was different and that the “extraordinary flow of paper that Mill celebrated constructed a world of letters, ledgers and account books that had its own pristine order but could not comprehend or rule the forces which shaped rural society.” The British, it seems, hid behind the voluminous amount of paper they created, to offer some semblance of control. From 1861 onwards, the Government published annual Moral and Material Progress reports that tried to reflect the vision of the state as “commander and builder” with progress being measured by improvements in roads, railways, and other pubic infrastructure projects and not as a “nurturer of human capacity and talent.” It was this fixation for records that led the English magistrate in Bengal, William Herschel, to develop the use of fingerprints in lieu of signatures to track Indian contractors, much before the technique was used for crime-solving. This was also the reason why the British introduced the use of stamp papers. While its North American colonies rebelled against it, the use of stamps took on a life of its own in India and flourishes till today!
Wilson’s narrative is brilliant and informative. To read the history of the Raj as a series of accidental events casts its history in new light. He makes quite a convincing case that history is not written from the central corridors of power but by the daily actions of minor players who often place their own survival above everything else.
And yet Wilson’s approach to chronicling minor events and tying them to the grander narrative of the Raj feels like the forest has been missed for the trees. The events chronicled, while individually fascinating, such as the stories of Katherine Cooke or that of Kattabomma Nayakkar, ignore the very real role played by a central command, whether it be the Company’s offices in London or later that of the British Administration. While the early days of the Raj were often chaotic and unpredictable, surely there was a sense of Empire as Britain’s Indian dominion grew and its stranglehold over the subcontinent tightened. It may be argued that the British had no lofty higher purpose in the way the Empire unfolded and yet it cannot be denied that there existed a very real desire to retain and expand, while also struggling with the moral and intellectual issues of an occupying power.
Wilson’s own approach, written from a distinctly European point of view, does come across as a chaos of ideas. Whether this was another ploy to support his thesis is unclear, but the narrative does come unhinged at times, with the reader wondering about the relevance of strange connections to a grander whole. Perhaps this chaos, while difficult to read, is as it should be. We, as human beings, strive to make sense of the whole, just as we seek a grand unifying theory to make sense of the physical world. In Wilson’s world, perhaps no such exists.
Prabhu Palani is an investment expert, histry buff, and poet based in the San Francisco Bay area. An avid student of colonial history, he obtained an MLA from Stanford in 2009 and wrote a thesis entitled, “English and Empire: The Case of the Madras Presidency,” which explored the origins of the English language in southern India. His poetry collection, The Pearl and Other Poems was published in 2016. He is the founder and CIO of Tresses Capital Management, an investment advisory firm.