Book Review: The Chaos of Empire

The Editor's Desk

By Samir Shukla

The Chaos of Empire: The British Raj and the Conquest of India
Author: Jon Wilson
(Public Affairs)

The long-accepted British narrative about its rule over India has always been suspect, a seemingly sanitized and self-serving affair, deeply mired in nostalgia. The operatives of the British rule during their time in power have written about India that suits their narrative – of bringing order to a vast and diverse populace.

Historians who have written about this have mostly gone along with this narrative, which is deftly debunked by Jon Wilson, a professor of history at King's College London, in his book The Chaos of Empire: The British Raj and the Conquest of India.
He unravels these generally accepted notions and demonstrates that in reality chaos and violence were the norm during the period. The managers of East India Company sent glowing reports back to the powers in Britain about their progress in India, but they were P.R. missives and whitewashed the reality on the ground. This is Wilson's premise in the book and he tells it all in fluidly written chapters examining different situations and different times during the period. The truth is dusted off those old nostalgia and half-truths. His analysis: The Brits and East India Company had tenuous control over the dominion at best and often resorted to violence. The East India Company was originally formulated for trade between England and India. It quickly became imperialistic, using force to further its objectives and foundations in the Subcontinent.

Wilson traces Britain's rule, known as the British Raj, from the East India Company's first transactions in the 1680s, to the formal establishment of the Raj in 1858, all the way to Indian Independence in 1947.

In The Chaos of Empire Wilson cites specific examples from different junctures of India's history with the British and deposes each British-written tale of the era as bunk. He points out the constant disorganization of the rotating cast of players who assumed power or command of a region that generally ensued in violence against the natives, mired in exploitation and racism, both subtle and overt. The pervasive distrust among the denizens of the country toward the British failed to synthesize the vast political and regional diversities of India. Administrators, rulers, and subjects, both British and Indian, are analyzed.

One of more telling paragraphs in the book is about the 1857 rebellion, arguably the first organized attempt to dislodge the British from India's soil. “The 1857 rebellion was not a revolt against the confident regime intent on spreading capitalism, civilization and modernity throughout the world. It was an insurgency against an anxious regime's counterproductive efforts to hold on to power."

In each chapter, Wilson tells mini tales that bring clarity to the events of specific timeframes. He backs it all up with solid research and documentation.

The administrators and soldiers' paranoia, careless governance, and distrust of locals often led to violence.

The one paragraph that describes the retelling of key moments in Indian history and the idea of British superiority is in the following graph, found in the aptly titled chapter “The Great Delusion."

“India's later British rulers and their post-imperial chronicles liked to propagate the view that imperial rule in India was a systematic form of power driven by coherent ideas. 'The Raj' is a phrase which embodies a certain kind of authoritarian high-mindedness. On television or in fiction it is now associated with unbending, stiff-lipped men capable of imposing their visions of order and hierarchy on an otherwise chaotic society. Historians of empire spend much of their time discussing those visions, tracing the British belief in the inferiority of Indian society, the rhetoric about 'civilization' and 'development', the arguments about property and the rule of law. Too often the context of those visions is absent, and texts are read with no reference to the situations they were written in. In reality, the British proclaimed their strength and purpose when their authority seemed the most fragile. In fact, as we have seen in this book, British power in India was exercised sporadically. It was driven by a succession of short-term visceral passions. It did not have a systematic vision of peace and stability, nor a way of working able to produce order. It created chaos."

The British were good at public relations, promoting their activities about building things in India – railway, government buildings, court houses – but Wilson shows they were lousy at daily governance, and when they finally departed in 1947, the country was left divided and in chaos. The violence just before and following the partition of India was the worst.

Wilson's The Chaos of Empire is as instructive as it is fun to read, denuding the perceived romanticisms of the Raj.

Samir Shukla is the Editor of Saathee Magazine