The British Empire Library

Peace, Poverty and Betrayal: A New History of British India

by Roderick Matthews

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
This is an important book. However it has an anomalous, not to say quirky, structure which may put some readers off. The history of British India does not start till page 79 and before that we are faced with a lengthy preface entitled 'Reshaping the Story' - a series of essays in rough chronological order designed to explore issues that are necessary in order to understand the history. The first is entitled Whigs and Empire. British India was first shaped by the success of the Whigs following the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The author makes the point that I8th century Whiggism was not concerned with democracy. The freedoms it brought were very much to the advantage of an elite, but an elite which permitted discussion and even dissent without the risk of major upheaval or worse. In many ways this was attractive to Indians also. The author makes it clear that many Indian interests coincided with those of the British and enabled the latter to succeed.

The author grapples with imperialism and colonialism. Imperialism, he suggests, was never an ideology, but 'a jumble of cultural and political attitudes, born of victory and sustained by dominio , fond of hierarchy and uncritical of supremacism'. In its British manifestation it was also 'tempered with humanitarian concerns and an occasional taste for self-criticism'. Matthews distinguishes it from colonialism in that, uniquely, the British conquest of India was not about land. The rest of the Empire involved to a greater or lesser degree a take-over of land for British farmers. By contrast India had a sophisticated system of land tenure, so that someone wanting to start a tea garden had to buy the land from the existing owner at the market price. It was also the case that the British had a weakness for sustaining the zamindars (landholders) - under the impression they were, or could become, country gentlemen with a penchant for public service. The zamindars would have had few incentives to want the British out.

Another strand in the book looks at how events in England might have moulded the nabobs, the ICS and other British people in India. Until the Great Reform Bill of 1832, the idea of paternalistic toffs managing the lives of landl ess peasants was how things were in Britain, and it would not have seemed that different in India. However as democracy set in and the franchise in Britain was expanded, especially by the Reform Act of 1867, this was no longer true - hence late 19th century/early 20th century British unease at how India was governed.

Yet a further strand were the Presidency armies, which after 1857 were deliberately kept large to protect British interests - far beyond what was actually needed, and costing huge sums of money which might have been used for more useful things such as infrastructure. This book contains amusing thumbnail sketches of some of the main characters - it is suggested that Lord Lytton's habit of lolling about was due to piles and that Sir Alfred Comyn Lyall had an unhappy marriage - it may be true, but I have had reason to study Sir Alfred and it is news to me. Whether the odd structure of the book is justified, I rather doubt. There must equally be a case for putting 'Reshaping the Story' after the historical narrative and it certainly repays re-reading at that stage. Or it might have been broken up into smaller sections to introduce each of the narrative chapters. But there is no doubt that the author has given us plenty to think about, not just subverting 'woke' simplifications, but also showing how British attitudes to India changed over the nearly two centuries of the Raj .

British Empire Book
Roderick Matthews
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2021 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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