Striking back at the Empire – Annu Daftuar

The Chaos of Empire: The British Raj and the Conquest of India

by Jon Wilson

Public Affairs, 584 pp., 2016.

Wilson image

Divided into fifteen chapters, covering a lengthy timeline from 17th to mid-20th century India, The Chaos of Empire: The British Raj and the Conquest of India, is an ambitious historical project. Jon Wilson presents a narrative of the history of modern India that challenges the romantic notion that the Raj was an efficient and orderly empire and discusses a rich variety of events and instances that indicate the real, violent and chaotic nature of British imperialism in India. His work highlights the importance of some of the most pressing questions concerning the politics of representation – What is the dominant narrative of modern Indian history that has been produced and perpetuated in the historiography? What stories of the empire were told to us? Were they accurate portrayals? In readable language, Wilson argues that we have been presented with a narrative of Indian history that celebrates the high-handedness of British Empire but which does not capture the reality of chaos and unprecedented violence imposed by the Raj. He writes, “Too many historians and writers assume the anxious protestations of imperial bureaucrats were accurate depictions of stable structure of authority. The result is mistaken view of the empire.”

Throughout the book, the author tries to undermine oft-repeated claims of colonial infrastructural ‘munificence’ by underlining the chaotic, uneven and disorderly nature imperial rule. The chapters on “Forgotten Wars” and “Passions of Plassey” effectively enlist instances of the unprecedented scale of violence on Indian people. Subsequent chapters throw light on how various systems, mechanisms and technologies introduced by the English in the name of “improving” Indian society were also failures. Major irrigation works, advances in modern banking (pioneered by Indians through other private forms of credit before the British arrived) or even the advent of railways did little to enhance substantiate the colony’s economic profile. Wilson argues that they were driven more by selfish personal interests for money making or speculative profiteering, surveillance and to maintain and consolidate British power in the subcontinent.

Wilson’s narrative draws on a wide chronological canvas – detailing important milestones in the construction of the colonial edifice. The book, however, does not engage with gender politics in its narrative of modern Indian history. It doesn’t challenge Indian history’s preoccupation with mapping a masculine colonial public sphere – an arena that was not only dominated by male leaders, political or otherwise, but also involved several women. Women, then, are rendered either redundant or merely passive agents in the larger sweep of historical events. This notion is clearly noticeable in the third chapter, “Forgotten Wars” – the only chapter that does discuss a woman but does so to show how non-Asian woman’s life sat at cross-roads with the otherwise masculine narrative of Indian history.

At a deeper level, it is not the about the white English woman (or her contributions per se), but her three marriages to East India Company employees that plays a key role in shaping the Anglo-Maratha politics of 18th century Western India – a crucial juncture for the East India Company’s alliance diplomacy that sought to establish an effective bridgehead over the subcontinent. Katherine Cooke, the white English woman in question, is shown merely as a soapbox over which the British and Maratha forces negotiate their politics. And that is how she features in the book. Her life circumstances are determined by political and economic status of her husbands and their antagonistic relationship amidst intense political rivalries. On the one hand, she was celebrated for upholding her Victorian values of womanhood against Indian ‘avarice’ (while she was captured by the Maratha forces although no detail is provided) and on the other hand, she battles East India company lawyers for her dead husbands’ assets when East India company insisted that it was company assets and not her husbands that she was fighting for. As a reader, I was left wanting to know more about how gender and race influenced the complexities of political relations in this context and at what moments was Katherine’s race valued more than her gender and vice versa.

Not only is it important to discuss the participation of women in political affairs of the Raj, it is also important to read how values of masculinity and femininity shaped the politics of imperial Indian history. For the English traders and imperialists, politics was a masculine field, which they often associated with values of aggression, strength, and authority. They demonstrated this through fortification along the Indian coastlines for building maritime dominance, by developing different systems of absolute control over the physical landscape (railroads, administrative centers) as well as the everyday life of the Indian subcontinent (creating disciplined subjects through revenue collection systems, writing, education etc). Traditionally feminine values of nurturing and cooperation, reciprocity, and sensitiveness, which the author claims were an intrinsic part of Mughal empire were undermined under the East India company and British Raj. Not only did the British want to demonstrate their masculinity by exploiting and dominating the Indian physical landscape (seas and land) but any sign of “weakness” or “fragility” – or signs of effeminacy as brought out most eloquently by the historian Mrinalini Sinha – was perceived as an act of emasculation. The result was a greater urge to be more aggressive and authoritative to keep things under control signified in not just violent reprisals on protests but also realigning spaces that undergirded the ruling dispensation.

For instance, the book points out that prior to the East India Company, Indian society comprised of various autonomously functioning societies under the Mughal regime. The Mughal regime created its authority by building alliances with communities, forging a federated system of patronage to bolster the power of the Mughal ‘centre’. Authority exercised by the Mughals was different from their English successors which was hyper-masculine and totalitarian but also constantly insecure about the security of their ability to wield power while unwilling to share that power with the people over whom they came to establish their rule. The British definition of authority was associated with, as the author points out at various moments in the book, “passion” for conquest, “rage” to redeem “lost honor” every time they were defeated in a war, and “anxieties” to create an empire that is under the control of its masters. Even if they used “softer” methods such as incorporating more Indians in administrative functions and bringing in liberal and modern ideas to India, they were never implemented with the intention to reform Indian society but by the need to strengthen imperial power.

Wilson has made use of a wide variety of historical sources ranging from personal narratives to archival data and unique secondary historical sources that bring to life a vivid picture of early colonial commerce and trade in addition to other technological undertakings. But he challenges the grand vision of the empire by revisiting the diaries and self-authored books by the same grand personalities. The reader ultimately ends up reading about the lives and accounts of either white male colonizers (Warren Hastings, Lord Curzon, James Mill among others) or prominent nationalist political figures (Gandhi, Nehru, Lala Lajpat etc.) which does not allow for a full decentering of the empire as viewed from its most oppressed subjects. Nonetheless, the book is provocative enough to invite further conversations on Empire and its past and future – especially now as Britain tries to move away from the European continent while still trying to fully acknowledge its complicated legacy on the two other continents that it exited more than half a century ago.

For these reasons, the book is likely to invite plenty of opportunities for scholars to engage with the enduring theme of what constitutes the ‘Empire’ and how it sustained for so long despite the glaring contradictions within it.


Annu Daftuar is a PhD candidate for Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.