The British Empire Library

Britain in India 1858-1947

by Lionel Knight

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
It is an interesting exercise, particularly on a cold winter's afternoon, to look at the syllabus from the major examining bodies for current A or AS-levels in History. Plenty of popular subjects, including the French Revolution, Russia, the American Civil War, the Nazis, of course, a perennial favourite, and South East Asia, but India has been the poor relation. As indeed has been the Middle East. It is as though some Gulliver-like figure has strode nimbly across several countries, not finding their past interesting enough to pause. These thoughts are prompted by Lionel Knight's new book, which, its publishers tell us, is part of a series targeted at A-level pupils, first year undergraduates and an 'intellectually curious audience'. It is difficult to imagine today's seventeen-year olds seizing this book with cries of delight. And this is a great shame, firstly because it is a good, solid book that covers a hugely complicated subject lucidly and comprehensively. Secondly it appears strange that Indian, and indeed Middle Eastern history, is seemingly not taught at pre-undergraduate level. Immigration figures show that India represents the top country from which people come to Britain as well as more than 25% of all work visas in 2022 being issued to Indian nationals and Indians now represent the largest proportion of overseas students coming here to study. Most of the immigrants have children, or will have children, and it therefore seems irrational to deny them a chance to learn something of their own history before they go to University, as the majority of them will.

The author notes correctly that 'British India is now a distant memory,' apart from family memoirs and nostalgic books, and states his intention to offer a modern, reliable account of the ninety years of Crown rule. In this he succeeds. The period is covered in chronological order, full of useful facts and figures, dates and names. It is told, as Dr Francis Robinson has pointed out, from the British point of view, and there is nothing wrong with this, although there are plenty of references to the work of Indian authors too. Knight's views on Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Pakistan, at the very end of the book are interesting, and perhaps provocative . There are notes on further reading, and, what really appeals, two pages of A-level type questions at the end... Lists of Viceroys, Secretaries of State for India, a chronology, glossary and census figures - this is a reference book for anyone interested in the history of the subcontinent and will be firmly placed on the reviewer's Indian shelf.

British Empire Book
Lionel Knight
Anthem Press
978085728517 l
Review Originally Published
Spring 2013 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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