The British Empire Library

Empire Building: The Construction of British India 1690 - 1860

by Rosie Llewellyn-Jones

Rosie Llewellyn-Jones has written a nuanced and thoughtful book detailing the mechanics and processes by which the British began to physically lay out their settlements and build infrastructure to support their growing influence throughout much of the Indian sub-continent. If you look carefully at the dates in the title you will see that the period mostly covers that of the rule of the English East India Company which lasted legally until 1858 when it was wound up in the aftermath of the 1857 mutinies and the subsequent uprisings. However as the author explains quite clearly the aims, responsibilities and legal mandate for the East India Company changed significantly during this 170 year period. And in many ways these evolving responsibilities fed through in to the physical environment the East India Company was willing to invest in and build. Supposedly starting off as a trading company, it very soon became clear that defence was required for these isolated trading posts (which were named as factories). Later still the Company took on the role of administrators and to complicate matters still further would lose various trading rights over the years. Consequently the author charts and explains the competing requirements of these phases as they overlapped or superseded one another and how they impacted upon the physical environment and structures built by the Company.

The book makes good use of some beautiful colour illustrations so that descriptions of these early settlements, structures or maps can be seen and understood through the visual context provided. The author also relates how some of the surviving structures might still be visited and how Independent India has incorporated (or jettisoned) the imperial era structures bequeathed to it. Of course many of these buildings have not survived either through attrition, changing fashions, natural changes like waterways changing or as the consequence of warfare. But it is interesting to see just how much of the initial layouts of towns such as Calcutta or Cawnpore lived on long after the British had left. The most interesting example of all are the myriad cantonments that were established to house the soldiers required to defend their possessions. These cantonments became very distinctive settlements indeed as they incorporated or adapted the original military layouts within them. And of course the remarkable transportation innovations that coincided with Company rule also linked communities and markets in new and unexpected ways be these through military roads, steam boats or railways. They enabled rulers and ruled alike to move around the substantial sub-continent in a transformative way that their forebears could only have dreamed of doing. Of course this was not all to the benefit of the local population as the author explains. But it is still remarkable just how quickly the Indian population adapted to the new transportation opportunities that were being made available to them.

The other big change explained by the author are the skills and training of the architects and engineers who actually had to put the desires and requirements of the Company into practice. In the early years, communication from London took an age and so there was a lot of leeway given to the administrators and engineers on the ground who got vague or redundant instructions from the directors usually with a stipulation to keep spending to a minimum in order to satisfy what was ultimately a commercial company with shareholders expecting returns. This of course could have disastrous consequences as the author explains with the first fort built to defend Calcutta when a reluctance to spend adequately on the fort or disrupt the surrounding community would see it fall with relative ease. In the early years the traders were desperate to make their factories defensible whilst the suspicions of the Mughal rulers and administrators tried to prevent any overt militarisation of what were supposed to be commercial premises. It did not help that the factors were not just afraid of local attacks on their factories, they were also wary of rival and hostile European powers each keen to try and gain a monopoly of supply of goods for themselves. Consequently there was a great deal of creative defensive structures designed not to look like defensive structures. It is no accident that the first engineers were naval or military men who understood the requirements of walls to hold the weight of artillery and the fields of fire required around them. There were no engineering colleges at this time, experience was gained on the job and the military requirements were pre-eminent. There was no point having a factory full of expensive goods if it could not be defended adequately.

Mughal power probably reached its apogee under the rule of Aurangazeb but his death ushered in a period of political instability which required yet more defensive thinking. However this very chaos made it easier for the Company to dabble in Indian politics and gain more influence and crucially permissions to expand defences and land around their factories which could be used to raise revenue and build settlements upon. There is a particularly useful section where the author explains the mechanics of how Calcutta spread from its humble beginnings of a factory into what would ultimately become the most important urban area in British India. Again, it is also interesting the legal hoops that the builders were required to go through. The Company was no Roman Empire knocking down inconvenient settlements at the point of a sword. Land had to be rented first from the Mughals and the Company used some of this land for their own buildings and defences and then created sub-tenants who could build and pay rent to the Company. In theory this changed after 1765 as the Company was granted the Diwani for sections of Bengal which effectively gave them the right to collect their own taxes and helping to transition the East India Company from a trading company to a government in its own right. As the Company mutated in responsibilities so did its requirement for new infrastructure and buildings.

I think what I like best about this book is that it details this evolution in changing priorities so clearly. There are too many simplistic writers on imperial subjects who have an agenda to say that everything related to Empire was wonderful or everything was terrible. It is so refreshing to get a properly nuanced book that looks at the complexity and changing character of an imperial endeavour such as that of India. Clearly the Company mutated for better and for worse and definitely not in a linear format as it could regress in some ways and progress in others haphazardly and erratically. Some administrators and engineers were more enlightened than others. Some events impacted and changed the administrative direction or military situation unexpectedly. Fashions from Europe could and did influence the culture of the rulers. Enlightenment ideas saw new ideas of responsibility and welfare that would have been alien to the earliest factors. But even these relatively enlightened men (and it usually was men) could veer into overly paternalistic concerns or inject their culture and especially what some felt was their religious obligations too quickly and in ways that could destabilise and alienate the local populations they held responsibilities for. The author explains the ups and downs of the Company as it gradually came under increasing direction from British governments concerned at the accounts of the earlier 'nabobs' enriching themselves and allegations (real and imagined) of corruption and not showing enough compassion and responsibility to the people being ruled. The author tries to unpick these complicated and ever changing dynamic political and social realities. The author uses a brilliant phrase to describe the dangers of 'retro-liberalism' by which she warns us quite correctly that we should not use today's sensibilities to judge the behaviour of those in the past. The best that we can do is to try and comprehend what informed their choices. What were their requirements and what were their abilities to put into operation their needs? There is a general story of improvement here as those responsible for building learn from experience (sometimes the hard way) of the best ways to exploit the human and physical resources of India and work with the topography and climactic requirements. Engineers and architects do begin to be educated more effectively in science and maths in particular and new educational and establishments are opened to train the future builders. Military engineering requirements give way somewhat to civilian needs. New communications arteries allow building materials and trained personnel to be moved more effectively. New innovations from Europe, especially during the Industrial Revolution, are brought to India and later some of these are emulated and transposed to the Indian sub-continent.

Having said all that there are problems and setbacks too as the author explains. There is a divergence between facilities provided to Europeans compared to Indians. The penny pinching of the East India Company can and does hold back taking advantage of new opportunities and innovations - for example the author explains that one of the reasons for the slowness in the Company building railways (as compared to the later British Raj) was that it was so expensive to acquire the land necessary to build the railways upon. The Company built the first railways to move coal and other raw resources but was slow to appreciate the popularity of paying passengers who were only too keen to take advantage of the new transport opportunities. Company accountants concerned with balancing budgets were often too slow to take advantage of these transformative technologies. And of course the uprisings of 1857 confirmed that the Company could and did alienate some of its own employees (mostly in the form of Company Sepoys) let alone the wider Indian public. And it is something of a paradox that it was the Company's own lackadaisical approach to building the new (but expensive) communications technologies like railways and telegraph systems that frustrated their attempts to put down the 1857 uprisings. The fast movement of loyal troops may well have nipped any problem in the bud. This was to be one lesson that the incoming British Raj would learn as they embarked on a railway building programme of enormous proportions that really would link swathes of India together in a way that would transform its own population's ability to move around and to identify with a larger body politik and ultimately help act as a catalyst for wider Nationalist aspirations.

For a book bristling with facts, names, figures and data, there were only two points that I would possibly dispute. One of which is only a minor quibble of a date where the author says that the first Fort William in Calcutta was completed in 1702 the same year that the Union Flag was first flown. My understanding is that the Act of Union was not until 1707 when the Union Flag was officially flown to represent the new Union of England, Scotland and Wales but that it was a design actually created during the reign of James I in 1606 to celebrate his Union of the two Crowns of England and Scotland. The other more significant area of dispute I have is when the author discusses the clash between the Portuguese and Dutch over control of North Eastern India. She claims correctly that the Dutch were not overly prioritising their contacts in India as their focus was with the Spice Islands to the East which I agree with. However she goes on to say that the Portuguese were similarly focussed elsewhere as they had initially sailed West to colonise Brazil and so also had priorities elsewhere. But actually this is not strictly true as the Portuguese had spent over 80 years sailing South specifically to travel East to the Orient hoping that Africa could eventually be rounded allowing for a seaborne route direct from Europe to India and the wider Orient. Brazil was a completely serendipitous addition to the Portuguese master plan to travel eastwards and was actually discovered after they had indeed rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488. The Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 had seen the Pope try and reconcile the Catholic nations of Portugal and Spain who each were trying to find a way to the Orient. It split the world into two spheres allowing the Spanish to try and discover a Western route and Portugal an Eastern route. An arbitrary line was drawn down the Atlantic Ocean to clearly demarcate the two spheres of the globe for the two Catholic powers. Portuguese mariners soon discovered it was easier to travel southwards around Africa by using the trade winds which flowed mainly from East to West above the Equator and then West to East below it. Using this technique the Portuguese stumbled across Brazil in 1500 and even more fortunately for them, they discovered that Brazil lay on their side of the line drawn arbitrarily down the Atlantic Ocean by the Pope in 1494! So Portugal could quite legally claim Brazil for itself. The point of all this is that the Portuguese goal was always to enter the Indian Ocean and find maritime routes to India, the Spice Islands and ultimately to China. Now you could make the argument that North East India was not essential to this endeavour, but India itself certainly was a vital part of their plan as their factories at Goa, Bassein (later Bombay) and Cochin would demonstrate. In the era of mercantilism trying to gain a monopoly supply of goods was considered essential. It was for this reason that the Portuguese and Dutch clashed so frequently as would the English and Dutch slightly later. But as I said, these are only minor quibbles in a book filled with fascinating facts and insights.

Overall I really enjoyed this book and felt that I got an incisive look at a crucial period of development of the Indian sub-continent. It is really useful to have a book explain the mechanics of colonisation. We can debate the pros and cons of Empire until the cows come home, but at the end of the day India was colonised in a very deliberate if perhaps unusual way. It is useful to have this physical process laid out and explained. Furthermore the way that it was developed by the British would live on long after they had left. If you were fortunate enough to live in India or to go on holiday there, this book would be a great companion to try and understand just how and why the East India Company and the later British Raj built the physical infrastructure that they felt that they needed to enrich themselves, defend their lands and ultimately administer the wider Indian populations they came to rule over. The fact that India would grow to become the most important of all British colonies suggests that the 'Empire Building' embarked upon here achieved its goals more often than not. The British may not have built all the foundations of Modern India but they did build a lot of them and some of them were very distinctive and useful indeed.

British Empire Book
Rosie Llewellyn-Jones
C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd


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