TRIAL OF EMPIRE - Scandal stalked the East India Company

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  • Published 17.11.06

The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain
By Nicholas B. Dirks,

Permanent Black, Rs 650

The British Empire has recently become the subject of celebration. As Britain’s position in the global economy plummets, and as Britain in political terms is reduced to no more than a lackey of whoever rules in Washington, there arises the need to extol Britain’s past glory. Often, when historians engage themselves in such an exercise of glorification, they justify it as revisionist history that runs against a historiography fraught with post-colonial guilt. In fact, there is no revision involved. Historians, who discover virtues in empire, are only harking back to the 19th century when historians like James Mill, Thomas Babington Macaulay and John Seeley wrote to justify the British Empire in India, and made heroes out of looters and plunderers.

Nicholas Dirks’s book is a critique of the British Empire especially in the manner in which it manifested itself in India in the late 18th century. He looks at the early days of British power in India through what was a cause célèbre in British public and political life in the closing decades of the 18th century: the impeachment of Warren Hastings. The British parliament decided in the 1780s to impeach Hastings for his various misdeeds as governor-general of Bengal. It is generally believed that the driving force behind the impeachment was Hastings’s rival in Bengal, Philip Francis. But the impeachment was pursued by Edmund Burke. Hastings’s impeachment became the greatest political spectacle of the reign of George III, and left, when it finally ended, the entire political class of Britain utterly exhausted.

Dirks argues that scandal was constitutive of empire. It was always a scandal for those who were colonized. But as the trial of Hastings reveals, in the early days of empire, it was a scandal for even many of the colonizers. The history of the English East India Company was a long and tedious tale of corruption, oppression and gross abuse of power and privilege carried out by the Company itself and by its servants.

In this history, the trial of Hastings, according to Dirks, occupies an “emblematic moment when scandal was decried with public fervour and eloquence, and yet when scandal was not so much obliterated as it was appropriated by Britain’s own launch into the modern world, with implications for its state structure, its national economy, its confident claims of modernity and civilization, its embrace of bourgeois reform at home and abroad, as well as its global political ambition.’’

As Dirks notes rightly, the impeachment of Hastings was the culmination of a process. A series of parliamentary enquiries produced the impeachment and Hastings’s eventual acquittal in 1795. The early hi- story of the British Empire in India is littered with scandal, as the British state tried to regulate a rogue trading company which had the resources to hold the British economy at ransom. What was scandal in the early days of empire became normal and legitimate for the later enterprise of empire.

There are thus a number of interrelated themes running through this book. One is an investigation of the actions of Hastings that resulted in the impeachment. In the process, Dirks writes also of the scandals perpetrated by men like Robert Clive and Paul Benfield. This leads to study of the impeachment itself: its management, its principal actors and of its rhetoric and theatre which captivated the public mind in London. A third theme is how the management of scandal produced a justification of the Empire and of British rule in India. Empire became a burden that Britain had to bear, unwillingly — “in a fit of absentmindedness”, as Seeley was to memorably write — as its destiny. To civilize the colonized was to remove scandal. The Empire had a duty to perform, a mission to fulfil.

In the playing out of these themes, Dirks is actually attempting to write a new kind of imperial history. In the hands of most of its practitioners, imperial history is part of the grand and seamless narrative of Great Britain — from the Company to the Commonwealth. Dirks argues that this narrative is meaningless without an account of what was actually happening in the colonies — India in particular — and how these were shaping events in Britain. Without the colonies — the oppressions and exploitations practised there — there would be no modern Britain, no modernity. The scandal of colonial exploitation makes possible modernity and its subsequent spread. Empire and modernity are both born under the sign of blood.

Dirks’s arguments are persuasive. His marshalling of facts and analysis compelling. His passion evident. His prose is lucid and remarkably free of jargon for a social scientist so obviously familiar with the linguistic turn in history writing and of the lure of post-modernism. Yet Homer nods.

Right through the book, Dirks mixes up Lord Wellesley (the earl of Mornington) with his younger brother who became the Duke of Wellington. Lord Wellesley was Richard, famous as “the elder brother”; Arthur, the second of the three brothers, became the hero as Wellington, and was never the governor-general. Critics of empire must be more careful and precise with the identity of the empire’s many paladins.