The British Empire Library

Viceroys: The Creation of the British

by Christopher Lee

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
This book aims to describe the rule of the Viceroys of India. Almost a quarter of the book sets out the background from the earliest times to 1858 and deals with the Governors General and their predecessors. The remainder works through the Viceroys with particular regard to the struggle for Indian independence. The last 90 years of the raj is wellworn territory and the chief theme of this book is the part the Viceroys played in this. The content is businesslike but unremarkable. The problems faced by the Viceroys are recognised and as a result the later Viceroys emerge better than one might have expected and even Dalhousie gets a more generous treatment than most historians would allow.

The problem with this book is not so much its content as its presentation. The author’s style is informal and more suited to the medium of television than the world of scholarly books. There are tendencies to mis-statement and overstatement. First, mis-statement: the East India Company was not ‘owned by the British government’ in 1661 (p30) - there was no British government then, and the English government never owned the Company. And overstatement: ‘The British nineteenth-century military mind had not moved on since the Crusades’ - (pi25). Where for example does the New Model Army fit into this? - or Marlborough? or Wellington?

The matter is not helped by three factors: the author’s lack of cited sources; his viscous prose; and his publisher’s failure to sub-edit. There are hardly any sources identified and when there are they are usually secondary ones. As to the author’s prose, what are we to make of sentences like ‘Lytton’s declaration to the Assemblage had rung certain enough’ (pi97)? Whose fault is this sentence? And what of ‘Zetland was at a loss with anything but the theatre of his office playing to an almost empty theatre’ (p346) - Eh? One deep calleth another, perhaps, but can a theatre play to a theatre? Even the subtitle of the book: ‘The creation of the British’ is opaque.

And then the misprints, inconsistencies and the complete muddle with the endnotes in Chapters XI and XII. One note includes the words ‘TO COME’ which I interpret as a notice to the author or other editors that more text will be needed here. Dalhousie progresses from a marquessate to an earldom. Names are misspelled (Hearsey or Hearsy on the same page?), and even dates are wrong (Canning Viceroy in 1758). I have never seen a book with so many mistakes. The author follows in the footsteps of two earlier books on the Viceroys. The better of these The Viceroys o f India by Mark Bence-Jones was astonishingly also published by Constable, but this was in 1982 before they were swallowed up by Little, Brown & Co and when they still had competent sub-editors. It is more scholarly, better argued, better illustrated, better bound and presented, and frankly in no way superseded by the present volume.

British Empire Book
Christopher Lee
First Published
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2019 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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