“The Great Defiance: How the World Took on the British Empire” by David Veevers

Detail of Indian painting, late 18th century (Brown University Library) Detail of Indian painting, late 18th century (Brown University Library)

One of the objectives of the historians of the formerly colonized world is to rewrite history from the perspective of the colonized. Yet, such historians have arguably created a historiographic tradition that is lopsided. These are at best works that expose the unfair and oppressive means through which the European powers came to power and held it for centuries. But in a sense, this approach to (hi)story is not radical enough for as the villains become protagonists, the narrative revolves around what they did and how.

But what if there were more than the narrative of the oppression of the powerful by the powerful? If one looks more closely, there are wonderful stories to talk about the instances in which the indigenous or regional powers exercised agency.

The Great Defiance is a pioneering attempt at writing history from the perspective other than that in which the colonizers are at the center of narrative.

The Great Defiance: How the world took on the British Empire, David Veevers (Ebury, March 2023)
The Great Defiance: How the world took on the British Empire, David Veevers (Ebury, March 2023)

Because the spotlight has not yet shifted drastically from the colonizers in historical research, David Veevers’s The Great Defiance: How the World Took on the British Empire is a pioneering attempt at writing history from the perspective other than that in which the colonizers are at the center of narrative. The book is a mini-encyclopedia of the histories of regions such as Ireland, Ossomocomuck (Carolina Sounds), Tsenacomoco (New England), among several others, and of regional empires such as the Mughal Empire and the Maratha Empire in India around 1500-1800. The historical period makes for an interesting time to survey for the British were yet to create an Empire where the sun never sets; it was still something of an upstart. The historical episodes Veevers covers in the book relate to specific battles or similar events that are evidence of the difficulties the British had as they found themselves negotiating foreign territories, languages, and practices of politics and war. Very often, they lost, not just financially but also in terms of dignity.

The case of Bombay, for instance, is generally interpreted as an easy case of a dowry that came to the British on a platter from the Portuguese. Veevers tells of the headache it was for the British before it became a great metropolis of commerce. It was a city that constantly suffered in the larger political tensions between the regional Marathas (led by Sivaji) and the Mughals:


Despite English hopes to develop Bombay as a new seat of trade and power, none of its neighbours was willing to make room in western India for such a colony. The Mughals converted Bombay into a makeshift naval base in its never-ending war against the Marathas, and Sivaji absorbed Bombay into the defensive perimeter of his new empire. It would take well over a century for the island to wriggle free of these dominant foreign forces and carve out its own place in the region. But before then, the frail English colony would endure many more incarnations at the whim of its more powerful Indian neighbours.


When presented without the who-did-what-and-when-and-how, Veevers’s point above might seem a simplistic conclusion. But the process of arriving at the conclusion cannot be really paraphrased because Veevers, as an excellent storyteller, manages to bring many strands of Maratha history, Mughal history, and the histories of the East India Company and its affairs back home in England in one chapter. The chapter actually starts with Surat, a city a few miles north of Bombay, takes many detours in biographies of relevant historical figures while also providing an overview of the warring kingdoms in the region. Indeed, readers unfamiliar with the region and the period may sometimes lose the thread of the story but Veevers is quick to get back to the main point that Surat was ransacked by Sivaji and this, in turn, adversely affected the British:


Worse still, while Sivaji withdrew once the pillaging was over, he forced the city to pay him protection money in the form of an annual tax, essentially a bribe to stop him from returning. This hit foreign merchants such as the English particularly hard, being calculated by the Marathas as amounting to a quarter of their yearly trading profit. The Mughal Empire’s most important port had been reduced to a tributary of the Marathas, ‘living between fear and hope’. Surat – the city from which the East India Company first cracked the trade of Asia – would never recover its former glory, and entered into a period of slow, but terminal, decline.

The book is deeply researched, almost to the point of dizziness.

Apart from the fact that the book is deeply researched, almost to the point of dizziness thanks to its breadth of knowledge about different cultures and histories, it is also a great statement on matters of style. It is astonishing that Veevers does not feel the need to break his chapters into different sections: they continue as long essays. If one is not careful and loses the last page read, it gets difficult to find one’s way back. That’s not frustrating at all: things just again fall into place as one journeys through the winding terrain of different actors and situations positioned against each other.

A related delight about style relates to Veevers’s art of writing history itself. In Veevers’ rendering, the British Empire and its officials are minor characters that keep getting knocked down by other powers mightier than them. Thus, his form of storytelling does a great service to re-imagining postcolonial history itself: the presence of the colonizer is not historicised from the point of view of its role as a conqueror or colonizer that it turned out to be. By pushing the British to the background, Veevers walks the talk of standing by the paradigm shift that history as a discipline needs by focusing on the voices of the marginalized:


In the pre-modern world, it was the British who often found themselves vulnerable and powerless. British imperial ambitions were met with defiance in every corner of the world. As a result, few of their best laid plans came to fruition. Instead, the British Empire ended up twisted into a shape whose ragged contours were a result of the decisions, interests and ambitions of the people they encountered, and not necessarily what the British themselves had hoped. That an empire emerged at the end of the early modern period is unquestionable, of course… But the hammer blows of Indigenous and non-European power had left their marks, battering the empire into something that wasn’t always quite what the British had hoped it would be. The great defiance of the early modern world against the encroaching tentacles of British colonialism is as important an achievement – perhaps more so – than the empire the British eventually managed to assemble by the end of this period.


In narrating the stories about the world, Veevers pluralizes history and his principle behind pluralizing history manifests itself in the stylistic choices he makes. He not only makes the voices of resistance stronger by making them the center point of history but also lets a vision of plural world appear: for instance, instead of lumping together all kingdoms in India as one chapter or one section, Veevers identifies them as the Marathas or the Mughals or Bengal for there was no India the way we see it now. It might seem to be a minor technicality but it makes a huge difference when discerned from the perspective of the organic relationship between Veevers’s form and content, style and subject. One hopes that it inspires more histories and more methods of doing history.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.