Facts on the Ground

While turning Bombay’s home for old European sailors into a legislative assembly in January 1928, labourers came across patches of dust. The dust was the disintegrated remains of the city’s first English residents. Now 200 metres inland, workers had dug into a graveyard that once stood on the desolate promontory of Mendham’s Point, looking over the crashing waves and shipwrecks. There, senior English officers had been buried in elaborate tombs, but the bones of clerks and soldiers, the ordinary English functionaries of the empire, were thrown in a shallow grave under a big slab of stone. Corpses were quickly dug out by the jackals burrowing in the ground like rabbits, according to one account. Even the clergy were buried in common graves, with Bombay’s first five priests thrown together in one hole. The cemetery was more terrible to a sick Bombaian than the Inquisition to a heretic, one observer wrote. By 1928, the cemetery had been entirely forgotten.

The English ruled territory in India from the 1650s. Britain was the supreme political force in the subcontinent that stretches from Iran to Thailand, from the Himalayas to the sea, from at least 1800 to 1947. These years of conquest and empire left remains that survived in South Asia’s soil, sometimes until today. Perhaps a quarter of a million Europeans are still buried in more than a thousand cities of the dead, as the British explorer Richard Burton called them in 1847, scattered through the countries that once made up British-ruled India-India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Burma.

These graves trace the geography of British power during those years, marking the processes and places from which imperial authority was asserted. The earliest are in ports and forts like Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. There, tiny groups of British merchants, sheltered behind thick stone walls, with white-skinned soldiers and gunners to protect them from people they tried to make money from. The largest numbers are close to British-built courts and tax offices, near blocky churches built quickly by army engineers as Britain’s conquests extended power through every part of India in the early nineteenth century. Some, like the graves every few miles on India’s Grand Trunk Road between Calcutta and Delhi, are by highways, marking the death of Europeans travelling or laying roads. Others, like the hilltop cemetery at Khandala three hours’ train ride from Bombay, cling to slopes above railway tunnels built at the expense of many Indian and a few European lives, as the British asserted their power by cutting lines of steel into Indian soil from the late nineteenth century on. From the early 1800s the largest single group of graves were those of children, little angels, as the tombstones often described them, killed by disease in their first years before they could be shipped back to Britain to boarding school. One hundred and fifty-one of the nearly 400 gravestones in the cantonment town of Bellary marked the death of children under the age of seven. All these graves mark the death of Britons who intended to return home.

There is little sense of imperial celebration in the inscriptions on these gravestones. More often, the words on the tombs convey a sense of distance and failure. Epitaphs describe men and women retreating into small worlds cut off from Indian society who died unhappily distant from their homes. Very few mention any connection to the people they ruled. What mattered was their sense of private virtue and the esteem of British friends and family, close by or thousands of miles back in Britain or Ireland. Shearman Bird, dead in Chittagong at forty-one, was a bright example of duty, affection, strength of principle and unshakeable fidelity, his gravestone says. His converse with this world contaminated not his genuine worth. Richard Becher, dead at Calcutta in 1782, was buried under the pang of disappointment / and the pressure of the climate. Graves like Bird’s and Becher’s were not those of a triumphant race, but the tombstones of a people scattered by their wars and affairs over the face of the whole earth, and homesick to a man, as the American Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of the English.

There are 1349 recorded British graveyards in South Asia. Now they are quiet and still, the only signs of life coming from the visits of grass cutters or tourists. But other imperial remains in modern South Asia are full of activity. South Asia’s independent states have moved into the institutions of British rule, many close to the centres of present-day public power. The architecture of old Indian city centres usually conforms roughly to imperial plans, with sites of administration standing aloof from centres of commercial activity, in quiet, green, low-rise compounds, with court buildings and tax offices together with residences for senior officers. Through the Indian subcontinent court cases are decided, taxes collected, and laws made in British-era buildings. Many of the jobs people do now link back to British days. In many districts, the chief local administrator is still called the Collector. Local courts, treasuries, irrigation offices and public works departments have boards listing their officers which stretch back a century or more, suggesting an unbroken continuity between the present and imperial past. The current manual to India’s Public Works administration, published in 2012 begins by noting that the present form of the department was inaugurated in 1854 by Lord Dalhousie, the Governor-General whose actions instigated the great North Indian rebellion of 1857-58. There is no mention that India became independent in 1947.

Perhaps the most persuasive legacy of empire is the imperial system of record keeping. At every place where there is some kind of official activity, pre-paid taxi booths or airport security scanners, police stations and licensed offices, details are written in pen in big lines ledgers. India exports computer professionals by the thousand and its government has put more data online than any other state. Yet its filing schemes and administrative systems are little changed since the days of the British Empire. The latest edition of the Indian government’s office manual has not altered much since the 1920s, the most recent editions simply adding an extra line in the list of correspondence that can be processed by the state’s departments: email.

It is easy to imagine that these legacies are the remains of a powerful and purposive regime.  Colonial cemeteries, imperial-era courts, grand railway stations and fat, rigid looking law codes seem to indicate a regime that had sense of purpose and power. They allow many, Britons and some Indians to look back on the Raj as a period of authority, a time when Pax Britannica imposed reason and order on Indian society and corruption or violence were less rife than now.

This book shows how those perceptions are wrong. They are, rather, the projections of British imperial administrators with a vested interest in asserting that they ruled a stable and authoritative regime. From Robert Clive to Louis Mountbatten, the Britons who governed in India were desperate to convince themselves and the public that they ruled a regime with a power to shape the course of events. In fact, each of them, scrabbled to project a sense of their authority in the face of circumstances they could not control. Their words were designed to evade their reliance on Indians they rarely felt they could trust. They used rhetoric to give verbal stability to what they and many around them castigated as the chaotic exercise of power. But too many historians and writers assume the anxious protestations of imperial bureaucrats were accurate depictions of a stable structure of authority. The result is a mistaken view of empire. We end up with an image of empire as a sort of machine operated by a crew who know only how to decide but not to doubt, as historian Ramajit Guha describes it.

In practice the British imperial regime in India was ruled by doubt and anxiety from beginning to end. The institutions mistaken as means of effective power were as hoc measures to assuage British fear.  Most of the time, the actions of British imperial administrators were driven by irrational passions rather than calculated plans. Force was rarely efficient. The assertion of violent power usually exceeded the demands of any particular commercial or political interest.

Britain’s interest in India began in the 1600s with the efforts of English merchants to make money by shipping Asian goods to Europe. At the start, traders who did not use force made more money. Isolated, lonely, desperate to prove their worth to compatriots back home, Britons believed that they could only profit with recourse to violence. An empire of commerce quickly became an empire of forts and armies, comfortably capable of engaging in acts of conquest. Even then violence was rarely driven by any clear purpose. Most of the time it was instigated when British profit and authority seemed under challenge. It was driven on paranoia, the desire of men standing with weapons to look powerful in the face of both their Indian interlocutors and the  British public at home. But violence did not create power. Most of the time it only temporarily upheld the illusion of authority.

From the middle of the nineteenth century, as more Britons arrived to rule India, the imperial regime seemed more stable. The fiction of power was sustained by its ability to manipulate the world of things, as much as to commit acts of violence. Authority began to be built in stone, in the construction of ornate imperial follies like Frederick Stevens’ Royal Alfred Sailor’s Home, the elaborate Bombay Gothic construction built on the site of Bombay’s first European cemetery in 1876, or Edwin Lutyens’ massive Viceroy’s Palace in New Delhi. In a more prosaic way, the British tried to assert their power on the surface of the earth, in roads, telegraphs, railway lines, survey boundary markers. In each case they use their capacity to re-engineer the physical fabric of India as a surrogate for their failure to create an ordered imperial society.

The British used paper as a surrogate for authority, too, asserting power in census reports and judicial decisions, regulations and surveys. By 1940 more than 400 different ledgers were being maintained in each district office in the province of Bengal, and that number does not include the register of things like birth, death and company directorships held by other departments. British administrators created a form of government that reduced the lives of people to lines in accounting books as if they were goods to be traded. Once official writing could be reproduced by printing and typewriters, the British Civil Service in India became a massive publishing house.

Asserting power in reams of writing was a way to mitigate the chaos that British policies and interests had created by creating order in a small realm that was closest to hand. It also cut the British off from the messy entanglement with Indians they believed might endanger British rule. In practice, British engagement with the complex reality of Indian life was limited and brief. Judging in court or demarcating agrarian boundaries were cursory acts, involving as little conversation with the subjects of empire as could be managed, before officials retreated back into comfortable European worlds, their home, their club, their minds. Whether using guns or cannons, railway lines or survey sticks, the techniques used to assert British power shared a common effort to rule without engaging with the people being ruled. As long as they could get on with their job (whatever the job was) Britons in India were rarely interested in the people among whom they lived.

Imperial rule in India was not driven by a consistent desire to dominate Indian society. The British were rarely seized by any great effort to change India. There was no civilizing mission. The first, often the only, purpose of British power in India was to defend the fact of Britain’s presence on Indian ground. Through the seventeenth to twentieth centuries, India was a place where good livelihood for individual members of Britain’s middle and upper classes were made. The East is a career, as the British politician Sir Henry Coningsby said in Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Tancred. When he said that he did not mean it was worthwhile. Coningsby’s point was that politics in Britain was the only proper pursuit for a gentleman, and that empire in India was a romantic distraction. In real life India was a career that did not link to any great national or social purpose. The most important thing for those Britons who chose it was the retention of personal dignity (in a world that offered great scope for humiliation) and to return home relatively young with a good pension.

Careers in the British Indian government were often transmitted from father to son. Some British elite families had or five generations holding government office. Take the Stracheys, whose most famous son, the Edwardian writer Lytton, wrote a coruscating attack on the hypocrisy of Victorian values. Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, published in 1918, criticized the previous generations’ combinations of high-mindedness with imperial violence. The Victorians praised God yet built a system by which it sought to settle international disputes by force, Strachey noted. Strachey was writing about his own family. Over four generations, members of the Strachey dynasty traced every turn in the patterns of British power in India. Lytton Strachey’s great-grandfather was Robert Clive’s private secretary. His grandfather and great-uncle were district magistrates in Bengal. He was named after the Earl of Lytton, Viceroy of India between 1876 and 1880. His uncle was an imperial bureaucrat who wrote the standard reference for the facts of Indian politics and economics, published in 1888. His father was an irrigation engineer, the first secretary of British India’s public works department and a pioneer of cost-benefit accounting. Strachey’s brother ended up as chief engineer on the East Indian Railways. His cousin was the judge in Bombay who tried and convicted the Indian nationalist Bal Gangadhar Tilak in 1897, in the process widening the definition of sedition to include any text not actively positive about British rule. For each generation, the greatest concern was to maintain the institutions the family business of empire.

With his family’s life so deeply immersed in talk of empire, Strachey was no anti-imperialist. He spent his early twenties writing a 400-page thesis on Warren Hastings, a work which saw its subject as the one great figure of his time. Strachey’s critique was that empire was banal, lonely, purposeless. There was no grand imperial mission; the British were merely policemen and railway makers. Strachey was filled with pity for his relatives, seized by a sense of the horror of the solicitude and the wretchedness of every single [English] creature out there and the degrading influences of so many years away from civilization. India was a place to try and go away and be a great man, but Warren Hastings would have been more use to the world if he had stayed at home and become a great Greek scholar.

For the centuries of its existence, there was something self-justifying and circular about the reasoning Britons used to justify the family business of imperial rule. The empire’s few grand statements of principle came when the livelihood of British officers seemed under the greatest threat. Then, political leaders responded with exaggerated rhetoric, but that rhetoric often meant little practice. In 1922, David Lloyd George described the elite civil service as India’s steel frame. Lloyd George’s words came in a parliamentary debate in which the MPs complained about the low morale and declining pay of British officers in Asia. After the First World War, the British faced a fiscal crisis and a revival in opposition from Indian nationalists. The government felt it had no choice but to allow Indians to start sharing power with their masters, to least to part justify the claim that the First World War had been fought to defend liberty against autocratic powers. In response to a demand for reassurance that positions in the business of empire would not contract, Lloyd George offered fine words but few promises. His metaphor of the steel frame was part of an anxious tirade asserting the centrality of the civil servant to Britain’s rapidly collapsing empire. Official unease continued to intensify, accelerating the process in which the British handed over positions of power.

We tend to see empires as systems of effective economic and intellectual power, as structures aiming to subordinate as much of the world as they can to their commercial power and values. The context to Lloyd George’s words shows that empire is not what we now often think. In fact, in India, the British Empire was never a project or system. It was something far more anxious and chaotic. From beginning to end, it was ruled by individual self-interest, by a desire for glory and a mood of fear, by deeply ingrained habits of command and rarely any grand public reason. It consisted of fiercely guarded outposts of British sovereign power; it did not possess a machinery able to impose British authority evenly across Indian land. To see the real life of Britain’s strange imperial state at work, we need to look beneath the abstract statements of great imperial officers trying to persuade their peers of their power and virtue. We need to tell the story instead of how British and Indian lives became entangled, often fractiously, sometimes violently, on Asian soil.

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