Adventures in Bookland: India Conquered by Jon Wilson
Question: how long does a guilt trip last? Answer: 504 pages. Let this reviewer nail his colours to the mast: he is a child of empire. His father’s family worked for, kowtowed to and adopted its name from the British. We were condescended to and condescended in our turn. And we ended up here. But, like the rest of the subcontinental diaspora, and the people of India and its surrounding nations, we’ve gotten over it. Ploughing through Wilson’s work, it would appear the author hasn’t. Not that Wilson doesn’t know his Marathas from his Mughals: there’s much of interest in this long telling of Britain’s involvement in India. What lets it down is the refracting lens through which Wilson views everything. The British are invariably portrayed as rapacious, violent and fearful, trembling in cantonments for fear of the brown-skinned hordes without. But those occasions when India’s ‘native’ rulers, killed people in their thousands are either passed over or excused. One begins to suspect that the author may have transposed a morbid revulsion at UKIP voters into his reading of the past. So his portrayal of 18th-century Englishmen bears close comparison to today’s media reports of the people who voted for Brexit. At the same time, every possible mitigating circumstance is accepted for the violent actions of anyone with brown skin. For instance, when a group of 120 men of the East India Company are mutilated and killed in the most brutal fashion, we learn that this was ‘an attempt to reassert the status of Indians against a group of people who had walled themselves off from local society’. Now, I’m not that keen on gated communities myself but I’m not sure that makes it all right to chop someone into pieces.
Wilson is concerned to destroy the idea of the Raj as a planned and organised imperial enterprise but, seriously, who actually holds such a view? The Raj was, from the beginning, a bootstraps and banana leaf enterprise, responding to circumstances rather than following a plan. Yes, Wilson succeeds in his enterprise, but the opponent he is tilting at is mostly filled with straw.
The myopia continues throughout the book: British bad, Indians good. In the end this is a book not so much about the chaos of empire as the guilt of empire.