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Justifying 'Empire': Then and Now

by Nicholas B Dirks;


Bengal nawab’s treasury was looted after

Justifying ‘Empire’: Then and Now

the battle of Plassey and Clive became fabulously wealthy. Nevertheless, the parliamentary enquiry into the acquisi-Laxman D Satya tions of Robert Clive in 1772 led to his

f the title of the book is reflected in its main thesis, then it should read: India and the Creation of Modern Britain. The book’s opening quote from Frantz Fanon’s, The Wretched of the Earth, “Europe Is Literally the Creation of the Third World”, extends the thesis to the imperial development of Europe itself, with the US following on its heels. The book’s main preoccupation is with the scandal associated with the impeachment and trial of Warren Hastings (in 1788), then governor-general of British India, by Edmund Burke, member of the British parliament. Dirks contends that though Hastings was eventually acquitted of all crimes and misdemeanors, nevertheless the nine years “trial of the century” helped perpetuate the empire and its myth. More than just a critique of empire, this book is a critique of imperial historiography and the Weltanschauung associated with it.

After the fall of Calcutta in 1757, a British sea captain is supposed to have reminisced (how) “we levied large duties upon goods brought into our districts from the very people that permitted us to trade custom free…” (p 4). In other words, the East India Company treasure represented ill-gotten loot from India. And this loot enabled the merchants to take control of political power in Britain after the “glorious revolution” of 1688, when the most important stock traded in

The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain by Nicholas B Dirks; Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, US, 2006; pp 416, $27.95.

the London market was that of the East India Company (hereafter EIC or the company). And the EIC became a steady source of wealth for the members of British parliament and investors alike. Apparently, between 1757 and 1765, a growing number of EIC servants were amassing extraordinary fortunes simply by taking bribes and/or through extortion of Indian people, princes and kings. For example, Robert Clive received an enormous personal jagir (land grant) from Mir Jafar, the nawab of Bengal after Plassey (1757).

A ‘Rogue State’

Thus a trading company became a rogue state. After acquiring the Bengal diwani rights in 1765, the company agent Robert Clive committed the EIC to pay the British parliament a subvention of 4,00,000 pound sterling a year. Consequently, so much revenue was extracted from Bengal, that it led to the outbreak of a serious famine in 1769-70 that took three million lives accounting for one-third of the population (p 53). Thus Horace Walpole wrote in the 1770s , “Lord Clive [was a] monster in assassination, usurpation and extortion….A tithe of these crimes was sufficient to inspire horror” (p 15). Sure enough, the acquittal. He was allowed to retire with his fortunes intact. But soon, the corruption, bribery, and extortion found the company in a financial hole. Dirks argues that the Regulating Act of 1773 was basically designed to bail the company out of insolvency with the British government lending 1.4 million pounds to its proprietors to avert bankruptcy. The reason for this was that in the British parliament, many sitting members had significant shares and proprietary interests in the Company fortunes.

This issue came out very clearly when Burke charged Hastings of scandal by placing unauthorised demands on the raja of Benaras, which led to his rebellion, defeat and annexation of the state by the British in 1781. Hastings then received enormous presents from Indian princes and kings, sold opium to provision the company army, and entered into contracts, which were illegal. He also drove the company into huge debts by going to war with the Marathas and then utilised irregular and deceptive methods to balance the budget.

So the scandal that came from both private profiteering and imperial aggrandisement were the necessary features of a system of conquest, expansion, and exploitation that has been virtually erased from the history of early modern Britain. Dirks observes that the Oxford and Cambridge histories of India have been written in the “service” of empire. So that,

january 19, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly


“the history of empire is a history of one scandal after the next. The greatest scandal…has been the erasure of empire from the history of Europe” (p 29). The imperial history of modern Britain made “scandal” the normal, and legitimate enterprise of empire.

Dirks draws a parallel here with scandal that preceded the American war and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 under the fabricated pretext that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. This shameless pretext was used to justify an imperial war that led to the systematic torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, not to mention the murder of nearly 6,00,000 Iraqi people, as numerous surveys estimate (p 35). Dirks suggests that the EIC too had a long history of using money to gain and increase its influence in the British parliament by paying bribes to its members. For example, in 1709, the Company lent 3.2 million pound sterling (which was its entire equity capital) to the state, in return for acquiring a guaranteed monopoly over the East India trade (p 38).

Debt and Corruption

Between 1755 and 1763, the nawab of Arcot was drowned in debt, as the EIC agents heavily invested in this debt in exchange for gifts, presents, diamonds, gold, and a part of his kingdom’s revenue. On leaving his post in 1763, the governor of the Madras Province, George Pigot made a fortune of 3,00,000 pound sterling. The nawab offered an interest of 20 per cent to all the Englishmen who invested in his debt. By 1766, almost every European in Madras was involved in some way or other with nawab’s debt (p 65). Similarly, Joshua Dupre in 1770 acquired a fortune of 3,00,000 pounds by bribery, rapine, extortion, and every species of corruption (pp 68-69). However, the most corrupt of all the 18th century company agents was Paul Benfield, whose name came to be associated with base corruption. In 1764 he came to believe that the debts of the nawab were the most profitable investment in the colony. Benfield became the chief proprietor of the nawab of Arcot’s debts and claimed for himself between 5,00,000 and 8,00,000 pounds sterling in addition to a regular annual income of

Economic & Political Weekly January 19, 2008

around 1,50,000 pound sterling. He used his fortune to secure a parliamentary seat with the help of Henry Dundas, and then British prime minister William Pitt.

However, this gallery of corrupt company officials and agents were headed by Warren Hastings himself. So Burke went after Hastings and maintained that scandals in India were corrupting England. Therefore, England needed to be cleansed of imperial corruption as the empire was a noble enterprise. The problem with Burke’s impeachment was that he held Hastings entirely responsible for the Company policy by painting him as the villain. Burke presented the crimes of the empire as the crimes of Hastings. According to Dirks, this position was contradictory because while condemning Hastings of “high crimes and misdemeanour”, Burke endorsed Robert Clive’s crimes and corruption. Burke conducted a spectacular impeachment trial by charging Hastings of taking bribes to the tune of 35,000 pounds from the Bengal nawab’s Diwan Nandakumar and then murdering him by conducting a fake trial to cover up the evidence. This, Burke charged as “judicial murder”. Hastings also confiscated the landed income of the begums of Awadh in 1781. Burke charged Hastings as, “the most daring criminal that ever existed” (p 110). But Burke himself was no less an imperialist. He was more worried about how Hastings corruption ruined the British character then about how it ruined India or its people. Burke had nothing but, an “uncharacteristic scorn for Indians, and for Indian institutions” (ibid).

Transforming the Empire

Dirks argues that the trial led to the transformation of empire into a patriotic enterprise and produced conditions for empire’s success. By the time the trial had ended, Britain was taking pride in its empire. However, Burke by then had successfully created the myth that the empire had been given to Britain by “divine providence” hence its sacred responsibility is to defend the empire. And this empire is best served not by a private Company like the EIC but by the British parliament and the state itself. So “the empire was naturalised as a normal state project” (p 126). Imperial historians like John Seeley in the late 19th century tried to raise the empire above the possibility of scandal. The written histories of empire praised Hastings’ and Clive’s role as the guardians of empire, noting little of their “misdeeds”: “...Clive or Hastings. They were now to become the great heroes of imperial history, the founder and the guardian, respectively” (p 283).

But deep underneath all the façade, the real agenda of the British in India was to extract wealth by exploiting its land, labour, and resources. So, to begin with, a significant amount of land revenue was used to finance its own trade. In other words, revenues of Bengal were used to purchase goods for export to England in return for enormous profits. And this was the main cause of India’s impoverishment. Burke stated it quite clearly as, “the drain of wealth”: “Numerous fleets of large ships, loaded with the most valuable commodities of the East, annually arriving in England in a constant and increasing succession,” which he called “the payment of Tribute” to Britain by India (pp 134-35).

The terms of trade between Britain and India were not only unequal but also unfair. Dirks argues that India became impoverished during the very years when Britain attained world economic power through its industrial revolution

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(p 135). Dirks also questions the entire notion of “free trade” as advocated by Adam Smith in 1776. European free traders and liberals accepted empire as a necessity and advocated for a firm and benevolent imperial hand to rule and bring progress (p 139). The liberal political theory developed its own justification for advocating democratic rule for Europe and despotic rule in the colony (p 258). Hence, the 19th century liberal thought accorded rights, citizenship, sovereignty, and history only to those who were seen to have attained the “civilisational standing” (p 278), which of course provided the justification for imperial conquest and colonisation.

Increasingly in the 19th century, Indian revenues were servicing Britain’s national debt. Imperial markets also provided for the early expansion of Britain’s key industries, i e, woollens, silk, lead, tin, copper, watches, etc. And the political expansion into India was critical for the success of British commerce and industry. So Britain’s economic expansion went hand in hand with its political expansion (p 160). Dirks takes this point further by stating that, the expansion of British empire in India was an extension of aggressive British nationalism and jingoism (p 164). The EIC monopoly was done away with only when India was firmly under the clutches of the British empire, which could then safely support British commerce in India. Thus in the new imperial economy, “trade (was) to be free for the coloniser but unfree for the colonised” (pp 164-65). As Dirks states that, “the subjugation of India…allowed Britain to emerge as the most powerful and modern nation state of the new nineteenth century world order” (p 238). So, modern Britain was we know it is a product of its imperial power and was heavily dependent on the colonial state for its sustenance (pp 242-43).

Imperial Historiography

In a substantial chapter, Dirks analyses the British imperial history writing project. Accordingly, most British historians in the past and present try to cover up Britain’s imperial past by simply overlooking it. Robert Orme for example stopped his official history of the EIC in 1762 because it became too scandalous to write about the plunder and rapine of the east (p 247).

Dirks quite interestingly cites the work of Ghulam Hussain’s, Seir Mutagherin (Review of Modern Times) published in 1781. According to Hussain, the English were not just fleecing their Indian empire economically but socially also their attitude towards “natives” was disparaging. They were simply unfriendly, ignorant and inaccessible to the people. They constantly expressed aversion to Indian society and understood little of the country they ruled. The British did not learn the local languages and were decidedly ignorant of local people’s life, customs, and opinions. Their only interest was to collect as much fortune as possible and return to England. However, unlike the British, the

Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences

Mughals came to India and became naturalised by adopting local culture and did not take the revenues out of India. Contrary to this, the British sought their own society and made no effort to bridge the cultural and linguistic divide. In fact the imperial arrogance of evangelical Christians like Charles Grant and William Wilberforce made every attempt to, “Christianise the practice of empire” (p 298). Grant argued that the, “empire must legitimate itself through Christian principles, and…through conversion” (p 300). For Grant, Hindu religion was a religion of despotism of the Brahman priests who were fraudulent impostures. The evangelical newspaper, Missionary Register advocated the “civilising mission” of empire by making sati emblematic of

National University of Singapore

The National University of Singapore (NUS) invites applications for:

Faculty Position in Tamil

in the Centre for Language Studies and the South Asian Studies Programme

The Centre for Language Studies (CLS) currently teaches nine languages, mainly to undergraduate students. Modules in Tamil as a foreign language are offered to support the South Asian Studies Programme (SASP) at the Faculty.

As a joint position between the Centre and the South Asian Studies Programme, the appointee will teach Tamil language modules in CLS as well as modules related to Tamil language, literature, and culture in SASP. Applicants for the position should have a PhD in a relevant field from a reputed institution, with some experience in the teaching of Tamil as a Foreign Language and curriculum development. Skill / knowledge / experience in the application of IT to language teaching would be an advantage. The duties of the appointee involve preparation for teaching tasks for tutorials and/or lectures in Tamil language modules, lecturing and tutoring in Tamil Studies, as well as some administrative tasks. Appointment will be made on a three-year contract, renewable subject to mutual agreement.

Remuneration will be commensurate with qualifications and experience. Standard leave and medical benefits are provided. For expatriate staff, a housing allowance may also be payable. Applicants may contact the Centre if they have any queries.

Applications are to be made in English. Those interested in the position should send a cover letter, a CV, a brief teaching philosophy statement, representative samples of self-developed teaching/learning materials, certified copies of the educational certificates and the names and addresses (including e-mails and fax numbers) of three academic referees to:

Tamil Lecturer Search Committee Centre for Language Studies Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences National University of Singapore #02-05, AS4, 9 Arts Link, Singapore 117570 Tel: (65) 6516-6346 Fax: (65) 6777-7736 Email:

Review of applications will begin from February 15, 2008.

Only shortlisted candidates will be notified.

Visit our websites at and for information on the Centre and SASP, respectively, and for information on the University.

january 19, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly


Hindu practice and belief arguing that empire had a sacred mission to protect women of India from a barbaric culture and religion (pp 303-04).

Indian tradition then became a useful justification for expanding imperial rule and “civilising” (westernising) Indian culture. William Sleeman sensationalised his campaign against “thugee” by justifying the creation of an aggressive military and police force that was given unrestricted power to capture and execute hundreds of people in the name of suppressing thugee, many of whom were just ordinary people dislocated by the colonial rule (pp 305-07).

Civilisational Mission

Dirks establishes a direct correlation between sati and the British imperial justification for the conquest of India. What the British failed to mention however, was that their own presence had greatly exacerbated the importance of sati (not to mention that their general commitment to social reforms meaningful to women was consistently insincere). Sati in fact became widespread after the introduction of the colonial private property system through the Permanent Revenue Settlement of the late 18th century. The problem, which was quite insignificant and almost non-existent, became widespread under colonial rule. Similarly, one of the justifications given for the American military invasion of Afghanistan, was to rescue Afghan women from the Taliban. However, what the US failed to mention was its own role in establishing and arming the Taliban regime against Soviet Union during the cold war (pp 310-11). So the scandals of the British empire of yesteryears continue to echo in the present times, rather shamelessly in American imperialism.

Dirks conclusion then is that Burke’s real legacy was to transform the Company rule into British imperium. Continuing in the same tradition, J R Seeley, the well known Cambridge historian of empire in the late 19th century stressed the significance of the empire for the national history of England itself. For Seeley, what happened in India in the late 18th century was an, “internal revolution” rather than a foreign conquest. This position is maintained even by the

Economic & Political Weekly January 19, 2008

present day Cambridge School imperial historians. Seeley’s view of the history of empire erased the story of scandal and corruption. Robert Clive’s propensities for corruption and deception were covered up. Macaulay also excused Clive from the scandal of forgery and greed. He saw Clive as a man who made the Indian empire possible. Thus he effectively sealed an imperial historiography on the conquest of India. All subsequent historians including the present day Cambridge School followed suit.

Dirks sees Seeley as the founder of the field of imperial history. For Seeley, the British rule in India was immeasurably better than Indian rule. Dirks points out that even though the empire should be a source of enduring historical shame, the Cambridge School continues the tradition of its predecessors by accepting the empire as a legitimate political and economic enterprise. Empire is written about as if it can be evaluated neutrally. Dirks makes an interesting point by arguing that, “…despotism continues to be more acceptable when exercised in imperial contexts than in European ones, where the same kind of neutrality would be considered unseemly, as we see consistently in the historical evaluation of fascist regimes in Europe. Neither fascism nor slavery could ever be written about in the terms used for empire. This conceit of historical ‘neutrality’ has in fact characterised the writing of imperial history from the early 19th century to the present, whether in the hands of Mill, Macaulay and Seeley, or more recently in the words of Holden Fuber, Peter J Marshall and William Roger Louis” (p 329). Here the names of Christopher Bayly,1 and David Washbrook can also be added. Similarly, the Oxford history of the British empire is a monument to the ideal of neutrality in which the costs and benefits of empire are still shamelessly debated and the problems of empire are still understood almost exclusively from the vantage point of Europe, while generally ignoring the devastating effects of imperial rule on the colonised peoples (p 329). So according to Dirks, the “Imperial history undermines the significance of its own subject” (p 330).

If Europe was built on the riches of its global possessions, then it “became” itself through imperial conquest. It veiled its dependence on the world by legitimating and naturalising the empire, “ultimately representing it as at best nothing more than a burden and a terrible responsibility” (pp 331-32). Subsequent imperial histories have continued to conceal the extent of Europe’s dependence on empire. For imperial historians like Niall Ferguson, the “British empire played a necessary and even benevolent role in the modernisation of the world…..[it] ushered in an era of economic progress” (pp 333-34).

Burden of Conquest

Dirks maintains that the economic benefits to Britain from its empire were huge. The benefits were as high as 6.5 per cent of the gross national product. However, this left the cheap unemployed Asian labour thoroughly exploited (p 334). Dirks also cautions us as to see how the European and later US imperial conquests placed the burden of empire squarely on the shoulders of the colonised. The shrouding of this fact which the imperial historians and imperial powers try to do, is in itself a scandal that should not be allowed to go either unchallenged or unexposed. Because, the appropriation of facts of imperial history leads to its use in new forms of global domination (p 336) the likes of which we are currently witnessing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The book on the whole is well written and the central thesis is also well argued. It has many interesting archival pictures including the one on the cover page depicting John Bull disguised as an English bailiff carrying the riches of the empire across the ocean strewn with corpses of the colonised men, women, and children of the empire. A thorough and exhaustive 35 page endnotes adds great strength to the book. However, a formal bibliography is missing. The book also has no maps except the one drawn by the imperial cartographer James Rennell (1793). For a lay reader unfamiliar with south Asian geographical terrain, this could cause a slight disorientation while reading the otherwise fast-paced text of the book.


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