Blighted by Empire: What the British Did to India

By Omer AzizSeptember 1, 2018

Blighted by Empire: What the British Did to India

ON THE EVENING of August 14, 1947, as India prepared to declare its independence, the last British Viceroy in India was sitting alone in his study, when, as he recounted later, he thought to himself: “For still a few more minutes I am the most powerful man on earth.” At the midnight hour, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, would rise and make his most celebrated speech, triumphantly announcing that after 200 years, India was reemerging on the world stage. But the Viceroy had ample reason to be glum: his empire was relinquishing its crown jewel, one that had enriched Britain for centuries. Louis Mountbatten was not exaggerating the extent of his power. Nehru had noted in his earlier writings that the power of the British Viceroy was greater than that of any British prime minister or American president. His Majesty’s deputy was India’s colonial master, ruling over 350 million bodies across a continent 20 times larger than Britain, accountable to none of the people he governed. When Nehru, writing from a prison cell in the 1940s, did search for an analogy to the Viceroy’s power, the only name he could think of was that of Adolf Hitler.

After two centuries of imperial rule, the proximate cause of India’s independence was the economic damage Britain suffered after World War II — a war, it should be remembered, in which 2.5 million Indians also fought. When the time came to pack up and return home, Britain tasked a London barrister named Sir Cyril Radcliffe with drawing the lines on the map that would partition the colony into two dominions, India and Pakistan, and settle the fate of hundreds of millions of people. Radcliffe, who had never been to India before, showed little interest in the people living there, and was given just 40 days to complete his work. In a poem titled “Partition,” W. H. Auden memorialized the image of an unprepared lawyer amputating an entire subcontinent:

In seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided
A continent for better or worse divided
The next day he sailed for England, where he could quickly forget
The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not
Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.

What followed this irresponsible and careless partition was murder, rape, and mob lynching on a scale never before seen in South Asia. The subcontinent had always prided itself on its syncretic traditions; certainly, there were moments of disharmony, but nothing like what would happen in 1947. Muslims killed Hindus and Sikhs, Hindus and Sikhs killed Muslims, neighbor turned on neighbor — and on their neighbors’ children. As far as the eye could see, bodies lay strewn across roads packed with refugees; pregnant women were targeted and cut open; corpses littered the roads of ancient towns and cities. Between one and two million people were killed in the span of this homicidal fury, and over 15 million people were uprooted. It was one of the most harrowing human migrations in all of recorded history. One person, at least, knew where to lay blame for this violence. Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy and first Governor-General of independent India, would later bluntly tell a BBC reporter: “I fucked it up.”

Last year marked the 70th anniversary of the Partition of India; seven decades have passed, yet the wounds remain far from healed. India and Pakistan are nuclear adversaries. Hundreds of millions of people still live in abject poverty. The intergenerational trauma suffered by the colonized and their descendants is not likely to disappear any time soon; nor, it seems, will the West recover from its amnesia about the true nature of colonialism. Niall Ferguson, the most prominent exponent of imperialism today, has written that there is a “plausible case that Empire enhanced global welfare — in other words, [that it] was a Good Thing.” Ferguson is not alone in this view. Just last year the academic journal Third World Quarterly was forced to pull an article entitled “The Case for Colonialism,” in which Professor Bruce Gilley of Portland State University argued that colonialism was “both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate,” the second claim more odious than the first. In England, Oxford professor Nigel Biggar rushed to Gilley’s defense in a piece published in The Times, chastising Brits who felt guilty about their nation’s colonial history. Backlash against Gilley’s imperialism, expressed primarily through social media protests, amounted to nothing: late last year, Oxford announced that Professor Biggar would be heading a new “Ethics and Empire” project, aiming to study a more balanced — and benign — story of colonial plunder.

Curiously, the recent revival of this imperial nostalgia comes not at a time of Western confidence and security, but rather at a time of great anxiety, of looking inward and backward, of nursing old grievances, and of scapegoating immigrants. A time when the West nervously reassures itself of its own greatness — or how it can be made “great” again. The publics for which Gilley and Biggar write, along with the great bulk of the citizenry, do not know the colonial story from the perspective of the colonized. Fifty-nine percent of Britons are proud of British colonialism. Textbooks and television shows routinely suggest that the darker-skinned masses benefited from their civilizing rulers. But this narrative of colonialism, which hinges on the gifts that the master left the colonized, and in this case, that Great Britain bestowed on India, has provoked an intellectual refutation that was long overdue.



When Will Durant, who co-authored, with his wife, Ariel, The Story of Civilization, witnessed what was happening in India in the 1930s, he set aside his work of history to write a short pamphlet called The Case for India. In this pamphlet, the ordinarily measured historian does not mince words, lambasting the British for their ongoing actions. “The British conquest of India,” Durant writes, “was the invasion and destruction of a high civilization by a trading company utterly without scruple or principle […] bribing and murdering, annexing and stealing, and beginning that career of illegal and legal plunder.” Britain profited enormously from what Durant calls the “rape of a continent,” so much so that on the eve of independence, the vast majority of Indians were living in poverty. It was, as Durant put it, “the most sordid and criminal exploitation of one nation by another in all recorded history.”

Shashi Tharoor’s compelling book Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India offers a modern update to Durant’s earlier pamphlet. The book originated from a 2015 speech Tharoor made at the Oxford Union, in which he argued that Britain owed India (and other colonies) reparations for the centuries of looting, violence, and depredation inflicted upon them. In this speech, Tharoor even attempted to circumvent the insoluble question of dollars and cents by arguing that if Britain paid India one pound a year for the next 200 years — a form of moral atonement for two centuries of subjugation — he would be satisfied. When Tharoor finished speaking, his opponents — all but one of them white — seemed at once amazed and repulsed. Soon after, a video of the speech went viral online, making both it and Tharoor the subject of intense discussion.

Tharoor’s biography lends special weight to his arguments. A sitting member of the Indian National Congress party in the Indian parliament, he has authored 13 previous books on India, literature, and foreign affairs. He was formerly the Under-Secretary General of the United Nations, where it was widely presumed he would succeed Kofi Annan in 2006, but the United States vetoed his candidacy. In his memoir, John Bolton — the US ambassador to the United Nations at that time, and President Trump’s current national security advisor — revealed that he received instructions indicating that Washington did not want a strong secretary-general. The neoconservative faction of the Bush White House thought Tharoor would use his considerable platform and oratorical abilities to infuse the UN with a new activist spirit, and so he was promptly blocked. Tharoor subsequently withdrew his candidacy and returned to India to enter national politics.

At the outset of Inglorious Empire, Tharoor admits that he believed the arguments made in his Oxford Union speech were “so basic as to constitute Indian nationalism 101.” Those arguments, which he expands upon in the book, may be well known in India, and their local variant may be common knowledge in the entire post-colonial world, but they lack widespread recognition and understanding in the West. In the 10 years since Tharoor left New York for New Delhi, the rise of historical revisionism and the touting of empire, as well as the pervasive ignorance of the past, have only increased. Western intellectuals have constructed a fantastical balance sheet where the benefits of colonialism outweigh the costs, where some imaginary moral good ultimately exculpates theft and murder. Western publics have hypnotized themselves with historical untruths about their darkest chapters, or else reinterpreted the story as a parable of Western benevolence. That goes for both sides of the Atlantic, and both sides of the English Channel. Accordingly, Inglorious Empire is neither an academic book, nor a comprehensive one; rather, it is a point-by-point refutation of the idea that colonialism in India was a Good Thing. Tharoor writes with the studious zeal of a prosecutor who knows that the preponderance of evidence is on his side, and he makes his case not by referencing Indian nationalists — that would be too easy — but by quoting the words of the colonizers themselves. “As India must be bled,” remarked Lord Salisbury, secretary of state for India and future prime minister, in 1875, “the lancet should be directed to those parts where the blood is congested.”

Tharoor’s thesis is painfully simple: India was conquered by foreigners for the benefit of foreigners, its wealth and resources plundered to enrich the colonizers and not to improve the lives of Indians. Since evangelists for empire routinely use phrases like “benefit” and “welfare,” Tharoor turns to the financial particulars of how colonialism was waged. India lost its independence not even to a government but to a private company: the notorious British East India Company, which extended its control over a sizable share of the country through both manipulation and brutality — and conducted its theft by taxing the natives and forcibly extracting their resources. When the British East India Company began building the railways that are so often touted today, the Crown guaranteed a five percent return on investment. Such a handsome return could be fixed only because the railways were paid for by Indian, not British, taxes. When the Crown purchased the East India Company in 1858, following the mutiny of Indian sepoys, its purchase price was similarly added to the colony’s public debt. Britain not only plundered India, but literally handed India a bill of enforcement — at gun point. The cumulative theft was so extortionate that Edmund Burke, as early as the late 1700s, predicted the money stolen from India would eventually destroy it.

That is, in fact, exactly what happened. Before the British occupation, India was not a poor backwater, but a culturally and economically prosperous civilization that had existed for millennia. India was home to the oldest university in the world, had originated our numerical system, had produced countless thinkers, philosophers, poets, and scientists. It had given the world Buddhism and Hinduism, and had birthed a more tolerant, pluralistic version of Islam. Yoga and meditation, so common among the overworked professional classes in the West, were born in India thousands of years before there was even a West to speak of. In the 17th century, the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb took in 10 times the revenue of his contemporary, Louis XIV of France. According to economist Angus Maddison, in the 18th century India accounted for 23 percent of the world’s GDP, a percentage greater than all of Europe combined. By the time the British packed up their things and sailed home in 1947, that number had fallen to under three percent.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, India was a wealthy subcontinent while Britain was a poor, feudal-ridden kingdom. By the 20th century, their fortunes had reversed: India was now one of the poorest countries in the world and Britain was the richest. In 1931, life expectancy in India stalled at just 27 years and the literacy rate was a mere 16 percent, with female literacy at a pitiable eight percent. The population was severely emaciated and diseased by the time the conquerors left. This, one can infer, did not happen by accident. Setting the economics of plunder aside, the sheer human consequence of this are such that Angus Deaton found that “the deprivation in childhood of Indians born around mid-century was as severe as any large group in history, all the way back to the Neolithic Revolution.” The deracination and deindustrialization of India was the direct consequence of British policy — duly deliberated, signed, and enacted by the most educated individuals in the world.

Indians were conquered at home but also shipped abroad as indentured servants; some three million Indians were forced to migrate to the West Indies and South Africa to work the plantations. If a parallel to the Indian experience exists, it might be found in the experience of the Africans who were transported in chains, many of them on British ships, to the New World. While indentured servitude was legally distinct from slavery, in the boats and the fields they were functionally the same. Later, the Indian independence movement would influence the American Civil Rights movement and in particular Martin Luther King Jr., who looked to Mohandas Gandhi for inspiration.

Britain got rich as a vast redistribution of the wealth that flowed westward to London, fattening the British aristocracy and even trickling down to the working classes, whose lives, however difficult in their own right, directly benefited from the brown and black bodies conquered in Africa and India. In fact, the working classes had jobs precisely because of colonialism and slavery. In the 18th century, half of all shipping in the massive Liverpool port was engaged in the African slave trade. Eric Williams, the first prime minister of independent Trinidad and Tobago, argued in his Oxford doctoral thesis, and later in a book called Capitalism and Slavery, that the slave trade laid the foundations for the Industrial Revolution, out of which came all of our economic progress in the last two centuries. To put this another way: There would have been no Industrial Revolution — and no rise of the West — without the colonial gains stolen from India and the bodies snatched from Africa. The freedom of the West was purchased by its looting of the East and South. The conquered knew that this had happened and in their diaries, journals, and memoirs, whether written by slave or subject, they documented the shame it caused them — a primordial shame followed by an equally primordial anger. If a balance sheet of the colonial record is therefore to be constructed, the bodies and wealth stolen from the colonized should be the first accounts to be settled.



Inglorious Empire reaches its polemical peak when addressing the famines that took place while the British ran India, what Tharoor terms the British Colonial Holocaust. That label may be off-putting to some, but, considering the sheer number of preventable deaths, the term is appropriate.

Between 30 and 35 million Indians perished in these manmade atrocities. In the 1943 Bengal famine alone, over four million Indians were needlessly sacrificed while the British government shipped food to Europe to be held in reserve. Amartya Sen famously found that there had never been a famine in a democracy with a free press. Colonies may have been run by countries calling themselves democracies, but they were ruled — as Viceroy Mountbatten knew well — as dictatorships. Indians died by the millions simply because the British saw fit to keep them starving.

When Winston Churchill was presented with the evidence of mass death known as the Bengal famine, he blamed the victims for “breeding like rabbits” and scribbled “why Gandhi hadn’t died yet” on the telegram. Churchill receives particularly rough treatment in Tharoor’s book. He was not just a moderately conservative politician, but a far-right reactionary, extreme even for his time, who fervently believed in the superiority of the white race and its right to dominate others (a fact not lost upon Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, who was advised by his cabinet not to appoint Churchill to any position). No one can doubt Churchill’s literary brilliance, but when it came to colonialism, the man was an out-and-out racist and extremist. “I hate Indians,” he said, “They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” His own doctor noted that “Winston only thinks of the color of their skin.” Tharoor advocates a serious reappraisal of Churchill’s standing, and he indicts the conservative prime minister for having as much blood on his hands as Hitler. While the accuracy of that claim is debatable (I happen to think Hitler was worse), an Anglo-American public accustomed to seeing its own politicians quote Churchill at every turn could use a reminder about the man’s delusions on race.

There is no controversy in calling Winston Churchill a white supremacist or in noting that the British Empire was predicated on racism. Colonialism was undertaken for profit, but it was justified, legitimated, and reinforced by ideas about race and biological superiority. Churchill and his ilk had plenty of reasons to believe that their race was superior. A white Englishman in London could look out to the world — to the Indian crown jewel, to the riches extracted by his ancestors, to the lands conquered by his own generation, to the colored people his government ruled — and see all of it as the result of history’s natural and inevitable plan for the superior race. An American in Jackson, Mississippi, or Birmingham, Alabama, could do the same for his own country.

In turn, Indians were excluded from restaurants marked “European-only,” forced to sit in the back of the trains in their own country and were barred from all British establishments that had “Indians and dogs not allowed” signs outside. They were variously called “coolies,” and the n-word was routinely used against them. There was no legitimate government, certainly no constitution, to which they could turn for remedy. Jawaharlal Nehru writes poignantly about the shame suffered by Indians in his masterful The Discovery of India, outlining the ideological root of the colonial enterprise:

[W]e in India have known racialism in all its forms ever since the commencement of British rule. The whole ideology of this rule was that of the herrenvolk and the master race, and the structure of government was based upon it; indeed the idea of a master race is inherent in imperialism. There was no subterfuge about it; it was proclaimed in unambiguous language by those in authority. More powerful than words was the practice that accompanied them and, generation after generation and year after year, India as a nation and Indians as individuals were subjected to insult, humiliation and contemptuous treatment. The English were an imperial race, we were told, with the God-given right to govern us and keep us in subjection.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the crimes committed by the white dominions of Canada and Australia against their own indigenous populations were an exact replication of the crimes the British Empire committed around the world. Other European empires were no less harsh; in many cases, they were worse. But the British Empire continues to live on as a glorified fantasy, consistently beautified and embossed with the insignia of enlightened civilization, as the one empire that can be respectably defended as altruistic. And when the defense of this Good Thing is challenged, its critics are painted as hysterical.



Those who point to the good done by Britain often do so by erasing the barbarous cost at which it came. The emphasis on the “good” ends up minimizing the crimes committed in the name of racial superiority and profit, emphasizing the charity of the colonizer and deemphasizing his slaughter, and often eliding altogether the perspective of the colonized. When colonial apologists like Biggar, Gilley, Ferguson, and their intellectual kinfolk ask for a more “balanced narrative,” what they really seek is absolution — from memory, from history, from responsibility. Only by defining conquest and plunder as something moral can they reclaim their treasured past and, indeed, their own present identities.

If there really was any good that came from the British conquest, it was the emergence of a new English literature out of the former colonies, a veritable renaissance in letters that produced the most innovative and energetic writing of the postwar era. Names like Achebe, and Naipaul, and Desai, and Roy, and Rushdie, and Said; and among midnight’s grandchildren, contemporary names like Hamid, and Sharma, and Rahman, and Lahiri — not to mention countless others. This was not the intention, of course. Britain originally intended to spread English only to an elite group of native intermediaries who would, in the words of Sir Thomas Macaulay, “form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern.” But the colonized took the master’s language and made it their own, and then used this language to make art.

In the end, the primary reason this book matters so much today is that the British Empire has not ended. It exists in the minds of ordinary citizens, and it is not just the public in Britain that longs for empire. Today, many Americans yearn for a 1950s that may have treated their fathers exceedingly well, but that treated African Americans, and other marginalized groups, with mob justice and racist violence. Emboldened in our own time, white supremacists have also latched on to the myth of empire’s greatness. Dylann Roof, the white American terrorist who gunned down churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, three years ago, wore the flags of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia on his jacket. Online cults continue to profit by selling merchandise with Rhodesia’s symbols. If only colonial nostalgia and its resulting vengefulness were confined to the fringes. For large swaths of the Western public, the colonies have simply been imported home, existing tenuously in the immigrant, the refugee, the nonwhite toiler. The phraseology once used to describe colonial subjects is now used to describe fellow citizens, especially those newcomers from places once plundered. As long as the West, and the Anglo-American West in particular, lacks the courage to deal honestly with the story of their past, the trumpeting of this propagandistic history and its toxic myths will continue. There appears to be a long way to go before the sun fully sets on the Empire.


Banner image published in the U.S. before 1923 and public domain in the U.S.


Omer Aziz is a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, New Republic, and elsewhere.

LARB Contributor

Omer Aziz is a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, New Republic, and elsewhere. He was most recently a Logan Non-Fiction Fellow at the Carey Institute for Global Good, and previously worked as a policy advisor for the Foreign Minister of Canada. He was educated at Queen’s University in Canada, the Paris Institute of Political Studies, Cambridge, and Yale Law School.


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