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      Review (monograph)
      Reviews in History
      Author (Review)
      • Ghosh, Durba
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      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 Durba Ghosh)

Jon Wilson’s India Conquered: Britain’s Raj and the Chaos of Empire is a big book intended to provide a narrative account of how Britain, a small island nation in the northern Atlantic conquered India, a large subcontinental mass that sprawls across the Indian Ocean. At over 500 pages, it has a panoramic focus and covers a great deal of historical and political ground as it moves from the end of the Mughal Empire through the end of the British Empire to postcolonial India. The book’s primary claim is that the British experience of colonialism was chaotic, motivated by British anxieties about their authority. The result of this argument most clearly stated on p. 498: ‘This book has shown that the idea of strong, consistent, effective British power in India was indeed a delusion’. British anxieties led to paranoia so that ‘British actions prolonged and fostered chaos’.

The link between British feelings of paranoia and anxiety and the emergence of a chaotic empire are developed throughout the book; when the British feel anxious (as they do, for instance, on pages 72, 121, 185, 195, 200, 228, 296–7, 348, and 447), they became paranoid (p. 71) and entered a state of ‘paranoid paralysis’ (p. 101, see also p. 233 and p. 293) that predicated the use of state violence. Because British officials and military leaders rarely worked collaboratively with Indians, preferring to use violence or heavy-handed legal tactics to restrain Indians, Wilson argues that British officials worked with ‘a great delusion of British control’ (p. 80), facing challenges that they could barely understand or manage.

Wilson’s argument about chaos, anxiety, and paranoia invites many questions; how did the ‘great delusion’ of the British Empire manage to last nearly 200 years? Perhaps more important how did Indians experience British colonialism? and what does the historical fact of a chaotic empire explain? From writers such as Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, C. L. R. James, Chinua Achebe and others we know that the colonized experienced a great deal of alienation. We get little sense of Indian rage or anxiety here. In light of Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire: What the British did to India, another big book on the British empire in India that came out recently, one wonders how Wilson’s text might explain the Indian experience of the British empire.

Much to his credit, Wilson offers Indian perspectives by using the example of various Indians whose papers and writings he has delved into to give us a more comprehensive sense of how ordinary Indians -– civil servants, judges, political activists and leaders – responded to the British in their midst. Embedded (perhaps too deeply) in Wilson’s narrative is an argument about the resilience of Indian social and political organizational forms and their emergence in the 20th century. This argument emerges in the early chapters of the book as Wilson describes British efforts to negotiate with indigenous rulers from the Mughals to the Marathas, and the sclerotic and confrontational ways in with British engagements emerged as flat-footed in a political environment that depended on personal contact and face-to-face negotiation. Against a flexible and dynamic Mughal regime, the British appeared as violent and coercive interlocutors in the early parts of the book, particularly chapters two and three. Described frequently as ‘impatient,’ Wilson notes that British actors on the Indian subcontinent preferred military confrontation over diplomatic negotiation. The argument about Indian ideas about governance lapses for about ten chapters that span the 19th century in which the British intensified their governance of India through expanded infrastructure, the codification of law, and the establishment of bureaucratic practices such as the census. Yet Wilson notes that by the late 19th century elite and educated Indians formed ‘a government within a government’ to challenge British governance in India. Emerging across the nation in various forms, Wilson describes groups of businessmen, religious reformers, dalit activists, legal scholars, and others began to more actively try to shape public debate about how India should be governed.

Perhaps the most poignant example of a figure trying to make Anglo-Indian relations work was Sayyid Mahmood, whose father Sayyid Ahmad Khan had been a leading reformer and had founded Aligarh University. As Wilson explains, Sayyid Mahmood ‘argued that Anglo-Indian sociability could create the foundation for a virtuous from of political power’ (309). This argument, borne of certain sense of intimacy with and understanding of British norms (Sayyid Mahmood was educated in Britain) did not go anywhere (see pp. 316–17), and Sayyid Mahmood ended up alienated from the law and the British.

Nonetheless, Wilson uses this moment to elaborate how Indians attempted to provide alternative forms of self-governance apart from the colonial government’s incomplete efforts to address Indians’ needs. As famines struck across India from the late 19th century onward, Indian groups – peasant associations in particular – came together to make demands of the government. Wilson writes very suggestively on p. 348: ‘The changing pattern of famine relief shows the beginning of what might be described as India’s welfare state, a system of rule which presupposed that the state had a responsibility to act to protect and improve society’. These expectations, coupled with Naoroji’s critique of the British drain of wealth from India, presage the emergence of swadeshi, a movement that had many parents in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Wilson pairs the well-known story of a grass roots movement to boycott foreign goods with the emergence of such Indian enterprises as the Tata Company and the Kanara Bank. In the years between the rise of Indian nationalism (from the 1880s) and the Second World War, Wilson narrates how Indians prepared to take over from the British, even if the British were not quite willing to relinquish their authority. The idea of popular sovereignty took hold among South Asia’s leaders, and as Wilson argues at the end of the book (pp. 485–9), the idea that the people should govern India became a powerful ethos for the post-colonial government. This ethos has been challenged in many ways, but the argument suggests the ways that being occupied generated modern forms of governmentality and ideas about sovereignty that predisposed the Indian government to pay attention to its varied constituents.

Aside from the trauma of partition, Wilson notes that India did not suffer the kinds of cataclysmic political upheavals that other decolonized and postcolonial states did (p. 488); this seems a much more important claim than the idea of a chaotic empire. As much as the empire appeared chaotic to the British, Indians emerged from the experience of British colonial governance with strong ideas about how to govern themselves, ideas that they have enacted and practiced as members of the world’s largest democracy.


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.