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      Review (monograph)
      Reviews in History
      Author (Review)
      • Sinha, Nitin
      Language (Review)
      Language (Monograph)
      Author (Monograph)
      • Wilson, Jon
      India Conquered
      Britain's Raj and the Chaos of Empire
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      Simon & Schuster
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      Modern age until 1900, 20th century
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      Europe → Western Europe → Great Britain, Asia → Southern Asia and India
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      Geschichte 1600-1947
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Jon Wilson: India Conquered. Britain's Raj and the Chaos of Empire (reviewed by Nitin Sinha)

British empire in India arose in the middle ground occupied by the contradictory forces of Britons being ‘(in)different’ to their colonial location on the one hand and feeling ‘helpless’ at the same time. This tension and pull between being uninterested and dependent, between devising rules and institutions of governance and yet remaining distant is one key feature, according to Jon Wilson, that explains both the chaotic emergence of the most powerful political entity of its time, the British empire, and its demise. ‘India before the British’, writes Wilson, ‘was, after all, a polity where power depended partly on consent, and resistance and flight were options for subjects who did not like the way a ruler behaved. Maintaining political authority needed political leaders to be sensitive to the needs of subjects when their livelihood was under threat. It was that sensitivity the British lacked.’ (p. 115).

What the British lacked, as a way of ‘practical’ political engagement, was seemingly compensated by paper bureaucracy and stability of rhetoric. Paper, contracts, deeds, and firmans were integral to precolonial rule but Wilson argues that these instruments had neither achieved a centralizing order in matters of governance nor had superseded direct, face-to-face negotiation. With the coming of the uninterested Britons, however, the idea of monopoly replaced the custom of negotiation; the paper replaced personnel negotiation.

Sometimes the echo of the older debate ‘if the empire was a result of a well-thought of plan or achieved in a fit of chance’ is found in this account as well but the gripping narrative of the book charts the readers away into details of intrigues, jealousies, wars, and lesser known individuals that show ‘how British and Indian lives became entangled’ (p. 9). What leaves readers puzzled is if ‘Britons in India were rarely interested in the people among whom they lived’ (p. 6) and if structural changes ranging from law to that of steam had failed to bring in the desired change (ch. 5), then how exactly were the lives entangled, and why? One definitely needs to unravel the messy history of empire by going beyond the stated ambitions of colonial actors, which this book exceptionally does, but there also is an unbridgeable gap between the two parallel projects of imperial history writing: returning Britons to the history of South Asia in a way to make them an entangled part and yet explaining the messiness of the empire due to their anxious and distant connection and standpoints. The book is a brilliant attempt to combine the two but also risks falling in between.

There are more engaging things that can be said about this book but in this short review I have chosen to concentrate on initial moments of empire formation as seen through the author’s frameworks of explanation. So, what is the chaos of empire exactly then? Given the current nostalgia about empire as well as its unrefined flattening critique offered by some postcolonial public commentators, the question is not only of academic but popular relevance as well. In this book Wilson (and also in his earlier one) has painstakingly reminded us to not overlook the element of anxiety that went into the making of empire. In the field of law or property, revenue or jurisprudence, the inner faultlines existed, and indeed, they must be acknowledged. However, in the last instance, Wilson also tells us that the ‘order on paper’ triumphed over the desired control on ground. Through distant engagement conquest became possible. This conquest, gradually based on the claim to reform, excluded the governed population. So, in this formulation empire led to the dispossession of native population yet imperial power itself ever remained fragile and fractured.

History sometimes requires us to paint the past in black and white. As a way of inviting the author for future conversation, let me end by asking, did the chaos of British empire make both colonisers and colonised its victim? And if stability could be understood as something that existed on paper as a strategy to appear powerful, then why not see anxiety also as a strategy of colonial governance to keep the grind of bureaucracy rolling? Why is the claim to stability a strategy and anxiety the reality of colonial governance?


Author's Response

Jon Wilson

During the last 20 years in the Anglophone world it’s been difficult to escape public argument about the morality of empire. From Niall Ferguson to Nigel Biggar, Seamus Milne to Shashi Tharoor, whether they think ‘Empire good!’ or ‘Empire bad!’, protagonists in the debate assume that ‘empire’ is a singular subject we are already familiar with. My purpose in writing India Conquered was to challenge that assumption. As Taylor Sherman so wonderfully summarises, the book ‘steps beyond the bayonets and pitchforks and reminds us that that the history of empire was far too interesting to be boiled down to such a facile debate’.

India Conquered attempts to break down the history of British political power in India into a geographically-dispersed sequence of interactions between Britons and Indians, to show that ‘the idea of strong, consistent, effective British power in India was indeed a delusion’. Its dis-aggregative approach develops a sense of the continuous patterns of British activity (anxiety, paranoia, impatience and violence, as my reviewers note) without suggesting that Britain’s empire in India was driven by a single set of interests or ideology, or by the intentions of a single group of (inevitably) men. Through specific detail about the lives of empires’ protagonists and subjects, that approach was also intended to draw the interest of a non-academic readership.

It’s a great pleasure that those intentions were well-understood and appreciated by most of the scholars who read and reviewed India Conquered. Even better is that the book provoked interesting questions; I’d like to thank each of the five reviewers for their engaged and thought-provoking responses. I’m glad to have persuaded Michael Dodson that writing general histories for a non-academic audience isn’t a hopeless enterprise, for example. The challenges to me cluster around three sets of relations, which I’d like to briefly discuss in the rest of this response: between India and the rest of empire; between empire’s myth of stability and reality of disorder and anxiety; and perhaps most importantly, between imperial institutions and the Indians entangled and subjected to them.

Taylor Sherman notes, rightly, that India Conquered ‘downplay[s] the importance of India within the British empire as a whole’, an argument she finds surprising. In doing so the book runs against the grain of a swathe of excellent scholarship on the migration and exchange of people, money, things and ideas within imperial ‘circuits’ and ‘networks’; it also challenges the move within some strands of scholarship to see every particular phenomenon as the effect of a global process of some kind.

India Conquered de-globalizes imperial India for a mix of tactical, methodological and empirical reasons. To have constantly made connections and comparisons beyond India would have made a complex and unwieldy book impossible to write and read. I worry that much of the literature on imperial connectedness simplifies what happens in particular places. The recognition that similar processes happened elsewhere should not nullify the argument that the character of British (and post-imperial) state power in India emerged from encounters specific to place and time. Nor does it imply everything is linked up through an external system defined with an abstract terms. Instead, it merely calls us to write an intelligent comparative history. If there is an implicit argument about the nature of Britain’s empire beyond India in India Conquered, it is that it was diverse and incoherent too, and never a singular or stable form of political power. Of course imperial India was connected to other parts of the world; India is a big place, historically a central node in the global economy, and people and things move. But not every connection was part of a system or even network; and there were many links that had nothing to do with empire at all. Britain’s empire was a disparate collection of territories ruled by such radically incompatible forms of rule they rarely cooperated effectively. As Andrew Dilley and I argue in a (we hope) forthcoming article, to argue otherwise is to define ‘empire’ in such vague, almost metaphorical terms the concept loses any empirical purchase at all. For scholars to view everything happening in India through a global lens is (ironically) to be myopically influenced by the specific social conditions of our own labour; historians of South Asia must members of one of the most globally-connected fields of work in the world. In the process, we forget the importance of other, smaller scales to much of what happened in the past.

As Sherman rightly suggests, India Conquered does indeed challenge the assertion that India was ‘the jewel in the crown of the British empire’. In retrospect, perhaps I didn’t argue for the unimportance of India to British global power before the First World War as persuasively as I should have done. There’s more work to be done here, not least in re-examining the argument Berrick Saul made now 57 years ago about the centrality of India to Britain’s balance of payments. That work needs to begin with contemporary understandings about what the ‘British empire’ actually was. Many 19th-century British commentators didn’t see India as a ‘jewel’ at all. Liberal imperial commentators emphasized the centrality of the white settler empire; J. R. Seeley thought British rule in India a temporary aberration against the normal pattern of ‘English’ expansion through settlement and colonization. Conservative and former imperial officers who thought India should be central to Britain’s imperial vision often complained that it wasn’t. One of the earliest uses of the phrase ‘jewel in the crown’ in reference to India (in the Oriental Herald in 1833) worried that such an important ‘prize’ should be ‘so lightly estimated’ by other Britons.(1b)

Nitin Sinha’s perceptive review focuses on the gap between the aloof myth of order which I argue Britons discussing India tried to project, and the practical entanglement with the lives of their subjects. Sinha suggests India Conquered’s effort ‘to combine the two … risks falling in between’. He’s right of course, necessarily so: the gap between imperial order and the complex and unacknowledged connections which existed between Britons and Indians was the major source of empire’s chaos.

Chaos is another way to describe confusion or unpredictability, conditions in which the human effort to comprehend and tell coherent stories about what’s going on repeatedly fail. India Conquered argues that India’s British sovereigns were structurally incapable of telling meaningful stories about their rule. Their desire for domination prevented British administrators from acknowledging the role of Indian actors in shaping their own actions. Without that acknowledgement, British narratives of control ended up as a series of thin, anxious and abstract accounts which were quickly contradicted by the turn of events.

Sinha suggests that I say ‘in the last instance … “order on paper” triumphs over the desired control on the ground’, but I don’t think I’m ever quite so categorical. As abstract and aloof as the British tried to make their rule, the local conditions of domination or otherwise always threatened to interrupt the official narrative. Violence always created a reaction, for example. The exercise of state power, by the army or revenue service, always depended on Indian agents who didn’t share the goals and sensibilities of British officials. In a sense, my point is that a regime which desperately desired distance could not avoid proximity; yet, their desires prevented them from talking intelligibly about what was unavoidable. Perhaps India Conquered is too glib with its talk of the failed ‘myth’ of order against the ‘reality’ of chaos and anxiety; there are many different orders of real life, of course. But that language works because there was an important difference between the two: order always existed in the unrealised future, while anxiety, like chaos, was a condition pertaining to the present which British officers wanted to overcome.

Both Durba Ghosh and Gajendra Singh challenge India Conquered by asking what the book has to say about the Indian experience of empire. Ghosh is right to note an argument about ‘the resilience of Indian social and political organizational forms’ embedded ‘perhaps too deeply. The book follows Faisal Devji’s analysis of an idea (or more accurately, political practice) of India as ‘an empire of distinctions’, in which both diversity and hierarchy were carefully balanced and protected, enduring from the eighteenth century into the Gandhian politics of the early 20th century.(2b) To a degree, the restoration of that idea and its fusion with democratic practices after the traumatic chaos of 1947 explains the political stability of India for the first two decades after independence. The point of course is that that idiom was only one of many through which Indians made sense of their political situation. An important theme is the way in which the violent yet limited forms of imperial power incited resistance yet also allowed space for a range of Indian political and social forms. Often at a distance from the most concentrated sites of imperial power, India under British rule was the scene of a far more interesting variety of ideas and social and political movements than the most crude brands of colonial discourse analysis would imply. Many – those which offered non-violence as a counter to a regime explicitly founded on force – developed through a direct engagement with imperial power. Many others did not.

This latter emphasis leaves me puzzled by Ganjendra Singh’s review, to the point of wondering if he read the book I wrote. India Conquered’s primary purpose, as Taylor Sherman notes, is not to challenge imperial nostalgia (there are plenty of other texts which do that better), but to make an argument about the character of Britain’s regime in India and its relationship to Indian action. The ‘Great Delusion’ (the phrase ‘imperial delusions’ never appears in the book) discussed in chapter 15 is of the British empire’s power and coherence, not its virtue or benevolence. Its argument is precisely (as Singh puts it) ‘that the British did not always matter’; that claims about British agency were often empty and (to use Singh’s words) ‘hollow’, and that empire’s putative subjects acted with a force and logic not determined by imperial power. To give two practical examples. The book shows how the East India’s Company’s presence in India from 1740s–1760s, including the actions of India’s supposed ‘conqueror’ Robert Clive, were shaped most of all by the dynamics of Maratha politics. Secondly, the book offers a genealogy of Indian nationalism showing how Indian political leaders created ideas and institutions challenging ‘the logic of conquest’, but which had a shape and rhythm that can’t be understood only by looking through the lens of ‘the colonizers’. Each of these arguments are made far more than ‘two or three paragraphs’. Neither reflect phenomena which imperial officers were even conscious of, both relying on either scholarship or sources that hasn’t been refracted through an imperial lens.

Perhaps the misunderstanding occurs because Singh thinks India Conquered is something that it does not claim to be. It is not a history of India, nor of Indian politics. It is a history, as Singh puts it of ‘the British experience in India’, in its very broadest sense, and thus of ‘empire’ in its complexity. As I argue above, that history can’t be understood without understanding South Asians’ actions beyond ‘the prisms of the colonizers’, but it isn’t the only history of the subcontinent necessary or possible.

If Singh hasn’t misread India Conquered in this way, the only sense I can make of his critique is that he thinks imperial power is not a subject worthy of study; that the only legitimate scholarship touching on South Asia exclusively focuses on the testimonies, actions and agency of the ‘native’ (what other word can one use if one adopts this position?) population of subcontinent.

Of course Singh’s own scholarship belies this argument in practice. He describes his research interests as ‘histories of colonialism in South Asia’. In a wonderful article on ‘India and the Great War’ (which sadly I hadn’t come across while writing India Conquered) he reconstructs colonial political intentions alongside ‘the politics of organized Indian nationalisms’ during wartime. In the piece, Singh is concerned both with the quick emergence of the idea of deploying Indian soldiers outside the subcontinent on an unprecedented scale, and the neuroses which their reliance on Indian troops caused amongst imperial politicians. He suggests that those neuroses had some kind of root in the existence of revolutionary terrorism, and that non-revolutionary Indian soldiers, existing ‘between mutiny and obedience’, didn’t think or act as the British wanted them to. But, the very fact words such as ‘fantasies’ and ‘anxieties’ can be used to describe these beliefs suggests imperial ideas and actions had a logic of their own, which needs careful study. As Singh accepts, the ‘prism of the colonizer’ doesn’t explain many things about the subcontinent; but it does need to be understood. Our chronologies even overlap, both India Conquered and Singh’s essay arguing that the tensions evident during the war marked ‘the beginning of the end of the British Raj in India’.(3b)

In his review, Singh accuses me of retracing ‘the mark of deletion’ which ‘relegates the consciousness, heterodoxies and imaginaries of the colonized to vignettes of two or three paragraphs’. The reference is to Jacques Derrida, in Of Grammatology, discussing Heidegger’s discussion of the supposed way in which the ’western episteme’ from Plato to the 20th century, had erased ‘the question of being’. As much as I value Heidegger’s work, his most absurd claim is that there a single system of thinking dominated ‘the west’ for more than two millennia. The idea of ‘colonialism’ as a single monolithic all-powerful structure of knowledge and power is similarly ridiculous. If that is Singh’s point, I wholeheartedly agree.


1a) Oriental Herald, II, 9 (1833), 222.

2a) Faisal Devji, ‘The mutiny to come’, New Literary History, 40, 2 (2009), 411–30.

3a) Gajendra Singh, ‘'India and the Great War: colonial fantasies, anxieties and discontent', Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, 14, 2, (2014), 343–61.