In an essay in Open magazine in 2017, Roderick Matthews, a freelance writer who studied history at Balliol College, Oxford, criticized Shashi Tharoor’s book Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India for its one-sided, wholly negative view of British rule in India. In that essay, Matthews wrote:
The true history of British India, the one that needs to be written—that is free of carping and calumny, and of present political purposes—is a complex and fascinating tale of how the British attempted to find ways to hold India by means other than the sword.
Matthews’s new book Peace, Poverty and Betrayal is, as the subtitle suggests, a “new” history of British rule in India—and it is one that is for the most part “free of carping and calumny, and of present political purposes.”
Matthews demonstrates an encyclopedic knowledge of British rule in India—from the early days of the East India Company in the early 17th century to Indian independence in 1947. His history is “new” in the sense that he frequently challenges conventional views of events and personalities who shaped British India. His first chapter entitled “Reshaping the Story” sets the theme of the work. Previous histories, he writes, overemphasized the economic factor in British imperialism in India which instead was “ a jumble of cultural and political attitudes, born of victory and sustained by dominion, fond of hierarchy and uncritical of supremacism,” but also tempered by “humanitarian concerns and an occasional taste for self-criticism.” British imperialism, Matthews notes, also involved the collaboration of Indians. “Indians—rich, powerful Indians—were complicit every step of the way.”
The history of British India was not simply an Indian struggle for freedom, nor was it a straightforward clash between imperialism and nationalism. Matthews believes that “events were more often shaped by opportunism, misjudgments, and mistaken assumptions, especially on the British side.” He identifies two key factors that shaped Anglo-Indian relations—Britain’s quest for legitimacy as rulers and an Indian quest for unity—neither of which ultimately came to fruition.
Almost all British statesmen who served in or dealt with India believed that British rule benefited both Britain and their Indian colonial subjects. Matthews provides brief biographies of these men, including Robert Clive, the victor of the Battle of Plassey and known as the founder of the British Empire in India, who Matthews calls “more a freebooter than an imperialist” who “lacked the courage and imagination of a true empire builder.” It was not the victory at Plassey that gained Britain India, Matthews writes, but the victory at Baksar, which “secured the British presence” in northern India.
Matthews treats all of Britain’s Indian policymakers fairly—noting their accomplishments, whether political or military, but also highlighting their failures. No one—not even Edmund Burke, Arthur Wellesley (the future Duke of Wellington), or Winston Churchill emerges unscathed. This is largely because Matthews is not an admirer of empire—Britain’s or anyone else’s. Who is, these days? But empires and imperialism were political facts of life in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. Britain’s statesmen and policymakers in India did what came naturally, and as Matthews notes, most of them sincerely believed that Indians benefited from British rule.
Matthews is equally critical of India’s political leaders. There are no real heroes in this book on either side, except for Gandhi. And here, Matthews overdoes it a bit (Matthews’s great-grandmother once cared for Gandhi). The notion of Gandhi as the sainted, stainless figure of Indian history, which Matthews appears to accept, should have been put to rest by the late Richard Grenier’s book The Gandhi Nobody Knows (1983) (which originally appeared as an article in Commentary magazine) and Arthur Herman’s Gandhi and Churchill (2008).
Matthews deems the unsuccessful 1857 Indian mutiny against British rule a watershed event. It resulted in “a conservative shift in British thinking” and an end to the opportunity to establish the legitimacy of British rule in India. Yet, Matthews concludes that had the mutineers succeeded in throwing-off British rule, India would have descended into “fragmentation and warlordism” similar to late 19th-early 20th century China. Matthews believes that India would have been better off if the 1857 mutiny never happened.
British misrule sowed the seeds of Indian nationalism, but it was a divided nationalism—divided by class, caste, and religion. One reason British rule lasted as long as it did was because Indians were divided in so many ways. India’s political leaders—Nehru, Jinnah, Gandhi, and many others were involved in their own struggles for political power.
In the 20th century, Indian nationalism became more organized (eg, the Indian National Congress, the Muslim League) and more radical, though most Indians served loyally on Britain’s side during the First World War. After the war, however, Indian nationalism strengthened by the leadership of Gandhi and Nehru among others, became a persistent and more serious challenge to continued British rule. And the terrible toll of the First World War made Britain’s leaders less confident of their ability to maintain rule in India. Surprisingly, Matthews does not discuss the impact of President Woodrow Wilson’s program for national self-determination on Indian political attitudes.
In the years leading up to the Second World War and during the war, British leaders, especially in the Labor Party but including many Conservatives, accepted the idea of Indian self-rule within the British Commonwealth. This was anathema to Winston Churchill who warned prophetically (though Matthews does not mention this) that great bloodshed would follow the end of British rule in India. That is precisely what happened—close to a million and a half Indians were slaughtered in the aftermath of British rule as a Muslim Pakistan was partitioned from India.
Although Matthews indicts the British as rulers in India, he recognizes that India’s democratic values and the rule of law have British roots. The creation of modern India, Matthews writes, was a joint Anglo-Indian project. “The skeleton of the new India had a British shape,” he notes, but “the flesh and blood were Indian.”