Thomas Bowrey left London for India as a child in 1668; his father had died of the plague in 1665, a tragedy compounded by the Great Fire the next year. Shipping him off to India was not the worst thing a mother could do in such circumstances. Bowrey arrived in Fort St George, Madras after the New Year, by then the ripe old age of nine.
Growing up in the United States can leave one with a curious idea of history. Revolutions are about independence, civil wars are about countries splitting apart, and colonies are about colonists. So what kind of a “colony” was, say, India?
The amount of ink spilled on the 12th-century temple complex Angkor Wat might not fill Tonlé Sap Lake, but it sometimes feels like it might. This Khmer Empire monument dedicated to Vishnu is a UNESCO world cultural site, a global must-see on tourists’ bucket lists—and is the only archaeological monument featured on a national flag. Yet Michael Falser still finds a lot to say.
In the 19th century, long before Barack Obama’s election as the President of the United States in the face of jokes about the possibility of a black man living in the White House, the British mocked another “black man” who dared to stand in elections to be elected to the House of Commons in England. Dinyar Patel’s Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism is a biography of that “black man”. Straightforward in style, and well-detailed in approaches to a life as it intersected with multiple, complex movements, places, ideologies, Naoroji addresses the vacuum in the pre-Gandhian political history of modern India. It is a much-needed intervention in acknowledgment of the contribution of Indian freedom fighters before there were Indian freedom fighters.
A new book by William Dalrymple is always something of an event. The Anarchy doesn’t disappoint: readable, informative, full of color. Dalrymple lets the protagonists speak for themselves as much as possible, protagonists which thankfully, but not surprisingly given the author, include Indians as much as Europeans.
On 26 April 1895, the trial of Oscar Wilde began at the Old Bailey. He was there because he had attempted to prosecute the marquess of Queensberry for libel, an action which had led to unforeseen revelations about Wilde’s sexuality (Queensberry, whose command of spelling didn’t equal Wilde’s, had called Wilde a “somdomite” [sic]), forced him to abandon his suit, and himself face trial for gross indecency and homosexuality. If Wilde had read of a trial which had happened in far-off India two years earlier, he might have thought twice about suing Queensberry. The trial in question, here ably presented and carefully analyzed by Benjamin Cohen, was, like Wilde’s, a long, salacious saga of sex and lies. There was, of course, no videotape, but a nude photograph which no one seemed able to produce was verbally offered in evidence. Like Queensberry, the defendant was acquitted and, like Wilde’s, the plaintiff’s life, as well as that of his wife, completely ruined, although neither ended up doing two years’ hard labor. The Hyderabad incident serves, particularly in retrospect, to reveal some of the British Raj’s nastier sides, involving questions of race, gender, bourgeois morality and, to a somewhat lesser extent, religion.
It may come as a surprise to Indians, although perhaps it should not, that were colonizers who were less than comfortable with the entire project of colonization. With the advantage of hindsight, and the availability of archives, the new writing about the empire has begun to disrupt the boundaries the colonized and the colonizers as mutually exclusive categories. One new book in this vein is Kief Hillsbery’s The Tiger and the Ruby: A Journey to the Other Side of British India, the account of a clerk who came to Calcutta to make a career but soon sabotaged it by getting himself transferred to a provincial city, and later on disappeared from India but did not return to England.