British Empire Books


The Making and Unmaking of British India

EditorLawrence James
PublisherLittle, Brown and Company
First Published1997
ISBN No.0316640727

"It was a true saying that the great Lord Clive applied to the progress of The British Empire in India - 'To stop is dangerous; to recede ruin.' And if we do recede, either from our right pretentions and claims - nay, if we look as if we thought of receding - we shall have a host of enemies, and thousands who dare not even harbour a thought of opposing the irresistible tide of our success, will hasten to attack a nation which shows by diffidence in its own power that it anticipates its own downfall" John Malcolm, 1805

Lawrence James has written a compelling and informative book that charts the entire British colonial experience in India. It is a detailed and comprehensive book that starts with the initial European competition of the Eighteenth Century and continues until the Midnight Hour of 1947. In the space of those two hundred plus years, Lawrence James manages to not only reveal information about the major political landmarks, such as the Indian Mutiny and the brutality that preceded and followed it, but also finds time to take the reader down lesser known, but equally fascinating, alley ways of knowledge. For example, he tells us why duelling remained so popular in India, long after it had become unfashionable back in Britain. And, he tells us how the British authorities were forced to react to some of the stunningly beautiful, and yet pretty much pornographic, Hindi stone reliefs and paintings. In fact, he goes in to some detail in to the sexual proclivities and relations between all the peoples on that continent. This is a particularly difficult area of history to research as most participants tend to do all they can to cover their tracks, primarily for their contemporaries, but it also makes the job of the historian much more difficult. And yet, Lawrence James manages to dig up some fascinating information on various sexual and social taboos and activities.

Most refreshingly of all though is the way that Lawrence James is prepared to state his opinions, however fashionable or unfashionable these opinions may or may not be. He is prepared to call a spade a spade. For example, He tells us that many of the nineteenth and early twentieth Indian nationalists who have subsequently been raised to the status of Indian heroes were little more than petulant minor aristocrats fighting to maintain their own privileges - with little thought given to the typical Indian peasant. And in fact, the dispassionate and logical British authorities often did a better job at guarding and advancing Indian rights and facilities than those aristocrats who it replaced. Additionally, he is not afraid to take on the virtual deification of Mohatma Gandhi that has taken place since his assassination. When Gandhi goes off the wall, such as the time when he told the British to lay down their arms and invite the Nazis over to Britain, Lawrence James pulls no punches in his description of Gandhi's character and his flaws. He goes on to candidly tell us what he thinks of Mountbatten, Wavell, Nehru, Jinnah and all those involved in the dismantlement of British rule in India. But even more than that, he is not afraid to say that the British rule over India was not only positive - as most imperial apologists would have liked to have thought about it, nor was it all negative - as most Indian nationalists and a lot of post-colonial sociologists and political scientists have portrayed it. Rather, it was a complicated balance sheet of plusses and minuses. You need to read this riveting book to see how he tallies these particular columns.

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by Stephen Luscombe