James Gillray, (1756-1815), leading printmaker, lampoons Cornwallis after battlefield reverses in India in a work Title: The coming on of the monsoons, or, The retreat from Seringapatam Related Title: Retreat from Seringapatam | Published: London; on December, 6th 1791 by H. Humphrey | Click for image.
Regret and rankle?
Why does it bother a British historian, that Indian-writers write good things about India, who are largely read in India? After 30 years in the employ of an American University!
Yet it does.
Writing smoothly, in the London Book Review (LRB) Perry Anderson uses more than 15,000 words to refresh British propaganda about the British Raj in India.
Full of gaps like
When the British arrived, it was the sprawling heterogeneity of the area that allowed them, after a slow start, to gain such relatively swift and easy control of it, using one local power or population against the next, in a series of alliances and annexations that ended, more than a century after the Battle of Plassey, with the construction of an empire extending further east and south, if not north-west, than any predecessor. (via Perry Anderson · Gandhi Centre Stage · LRB 5 July 2012)
Was the British imperial expansion in India, ‘swift and easy’ over ‘more than a century after the Battle of Plassey.’
Eh … Oh … Aah
Let us look at some history.
First: If the expansion was swift and easy, the decline and departure was faster. Between Plassey (1757) and the 1857 War was a hundred years. Between the 1857 War and Indian Independence (1947) was only ninety.
Indian independence, which had a large dose of non-violent protest, was preceded by British loss of initiative and control.
English are nowhere
1600 – East India Company formed.
1683 – British Crown approves new charter for EEIC; which can now wage war.
1739 – Nadir Shah’s raid on India sees British missing in action.
1746 – Chauth for Bengal & Bihar ceded to Marathas by Mughals. British are still nowhere.
1757 – Battle of Plassey – an artificial landmark in Indian history; but important to British.
1761 – Ahmad Shah Abdali defeat Marathas at Panipat. Maratha powers starts to decline.
1764 – British take advantage of Maratha /Mughal weakness; and win the minor Battle of Buxar, 22 October; which lands them the Diwani of Bengal. British loot of India begins. Regular famines become feature of the British Raj.
English Appear Somewhere
1765-1785 – British win battles against European powers (French, Dutch, Danes) but lose wars against Indian kings.
1781 – Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, October 19, at Yorktown, America.
1786 – 23 February, Cornwallis appointed for India position. Departing in May, arrived at Madras – 22 August.
1799 – Tipu Sultan’s death. British power consolidates in India.
English Are Here in India
1818 – The Third Anglo-Maratha /Pindari War ends. English power arrives in India.
1839 – Death of Ranjit Singh.
1845-1849 – The Sikh Wars in which English gained supremacy over the last outpost of Indian power.
British power in India
1857 – Combined Indian forces, led by the Mughal-Maratha alliance declare war. Major battles continue for 18 months. English win.
British Loss of Power
1916 – April 16. BG Tilak declares Swaraj is my birthright; forms Home Rule League at the Bombay Provincial Conference held at Belgaum.
1927 – Indian polity refuses to negotiate with Simon Commission.
1930 – Bhagat Singh displays disinterest in the legal outcome of his trial.
1944 – India’s leading industrialists come together (Bombay Club) and make an economic-plan document for an India which is yet to be born; for a government that was yet to be formed.
1946 – Naval Ratings raise the Indian Flag of independence.
1947 – Britain out of India
Two: A recent British ranking included Rani Lakshmi Bai as sole woman entry in the list of Top-20 foes of the British Empire. More than 200 wars, battles, mutinies, bombings, armed uprisings, spread over the 190 years, in which more than 10 million people died, was not easy.
Three: The loss of India was recurring theme in the less than 200 years of British misrule in India. The British knew their hold on India was one-step away from losing it.
Voices From The Past
Lord Curzon, probably got the tone for the Raj, till its end 50 years later. In a letter, on 31 March 1901, (some suggest March 3), to the Conservative minister AJ Balfour; Curzon predicted in 1901,
governing of India was far and away the biggest thing that the British were doing anywhere. As long as we rule India, we are the greatest power in the world. If we lose it we shall straightway drop to a third rate power. (from – Curzon in India: Achievement; books.google.co.in; David Dilks – 1970.).
In 1857, soon after the outbreak of war, reporting on Europe’s reactions, were brothers Eliakim Littell and Robert S. Littell, for their American publication, The Living Age (Volume 55 – Page 113).
In a familiar manner they said,
India is not only an English, it is a European subject; and the face of the Continental press moves that it is so. “Will England lose India or not?” is a question mooted by friends and foes, with hopes and fears according to their feelings; and from what they say of our prospects, we may judge of their future ‘conduct in the event of any serious loss to our power. On the Continent, more than in this country, it seems to be felt, and is indeed here and there loudly proclaimed, that Great Britain will lose her European supremacy if she lose India.
In fact, the loss of India would be a deathblow to her commerce and industry. (From: The living age …, Volume 55; By Eliakim Littell, Robert S. Littell, Making of America Project.).
Further back, in 1829, writing in Gentleman’s magazine, (Volume 149), John Nichols summed up the mood in England.
It has been said that we might lose India, if, with the gospel of peace in one hand, and the code of English justice in the other, we thus legislate in a country whose superstitions are inveterate! Lose India !’ what is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul!
Many Britishers said the opposite too. Churchill, the most famous of these Indian-doom predictors, thundered in the British Parliament,
In handing over the Government of India to these so-called political classes we are handing over to men of straw, of whom, in a few years, no trace will remain.
We now know whose predictions were right.
It can be safely said, that India was far from subdued, either easily or quickly, in the entire British Raj. A long enough search will produce one such analysis for each year where the British fear of losing India was exposed.
But the British lost power pretty fast.