Britannia’s Indian Empire
Having lost an empire in the West, Britain gained a second one in the East. Defeated on the continent “discovered” by Christopher Columbus, the British triumphed in the subcontinent laid open by Vasco da Gama. Eleven years after his capitulation to George Washington at Yorktown, Lord Cornwallis, now Governor-General of India, overcame Tipu Sultan at Seringapatam. For the modest earl and for his resurgent nation, this victory over their most determined enemy in the realm of the Mughals marked a singular change of fortune. It was celebrated with fierce jubilation, especially in Calcutta. The whole city was illuminated in “one of the most superb coup d’oeils” [sic] the Calcutta Gazette had ever witnessed, and an array of classical mottoes and allegorical motifs conveyed the sense of a Roman triumph. Government House, for example, was draped with a huge “transparent painting”1 which depicted Fame blowing a trumpet over the bust of Cornwallis, while Tipu’s sons give the treaty (which deprived their father of half his Mysore kingdom) to Britannia, herself supported by the figure of Hercules against a background of Seringapatam. This is not to say that the subcontinent was vanquished at a stroke as a compensation for the loss of the American colonies, though that loss did inspire the British to be more acquisitive in Asia. In fact, India was subverted over several generations. It was coerced and inveigled into collaboration according to no central plan and often by the initiative of men on the spot. This was a radically different form of empire-building from that carried out in America, a new model suited for regions deemed inhospitable to European colonists. British dominion in India rested on conquest rather than settlement. Like Rome’s Empire, Britain’s Raj was based on force of arms. As Lord Bryce said, its administration bore “a permanently military character.”2 Its atmosphere was permeated by gunpowder. The tiny white community was a garrison, all too aware that what had been won by the sword might be lost by the sword.
Nothing could have seemed more fantastic, when Queen Elizabeth I gave the East India Company its charter on New Year’s Eve 1600, than that within two centuries it would be the paramount power in India. The Company’s aim was to trade in spices, and it was permitted in due course to establish a few commercial outposts or “factories” on the fringe of the Mughal Empire. This was a byword for might, majesty and magnificence. Its court was a self-proclaimed paradise of gems, silks, perfumes, odalisques, ivory and peacock feathers. English visitors were humbled by its luxury: when “John Company” (as it was called) presented the Emperor Jahangir (“World-seizer”)3 with a coach, he had all its fittings of base metal replaced with ones of silver and gold. The Mughals’ cities were larger and more beautiful than London or Paris. Their bankers were richer than those of Hamburg and Cádiz. Their cotton producers clothed much of Africa and Asia, and their hundred million population matched that of all Europe. Their elephant cavalry would have intimidated Hannibal and their trains of artillery would have awed Louis XIV. What is more, the seventeenth century was a golden age of Mughal art, poetry, painting and architecture.
During the reign of Aurangzeb, who wore an iron disembowelling claw on his arm and devoted his life to conflict, this gorgeous imperial edifice was strained to the limit. After his death in 1707 it disintegrated. His successors either engaged in power struggles or, in Macaulay’s contemptuous words, “sauntered away life in secluded palaces, chewing bang [or bhang, cannabis], fondling concubines, and listening to buffoons.”4 There were internal revolts in Oudh, Mysore and elsewhere, while the Marathas, a confederacy of marauding clans based in Poona, devastated huge tracts of central India, reaching as far as the British trading post of Calcutta. Foreign invaders also took their toll. Delhi was sacked by the Persians in 1739 and by the Afghans in 1756, the former carrying off the Peacock Throne and the Koh-i-noor Diamond (the “Mountain of Light”) as well as booty worth a billion rupees, the latter carrying out rape and massacre on an inconceivable scale. Britain and France, whose hostilities extended to India, exploited and exacerbated the disorder. They formed alliances with local rulers. And they fought increasingly for political as much as for commercial ends, though these ends were inextricably entwined since, according to the mercantilist orthodoxy of the time, wealth was crystallised power. Thus cash from commerce paid native troops (sepoys) to take territory which yielded tax revenues and opportunities for further gain. The British were more adept than the French in this endeavour, having better military leadership as well as greater naval strength. For all his imperial vision and diplomatic skill François Dupleix, the French Governor, was not a brave man—he avoided shot and shell on the grounds that tranquillity was necessary for the cultivation of his genius. By contrast the genius of Robert Clive, the burly pen-pusher who emerged as the English conquistador, was for action. He combined terrific energy and suicidal courage. His bouts of activity were so furious that they seem to have brought on attacks of nervous derangement, which he calmed with opium. Although he spoke no Indian tongue, Clive won the devotion of sepoys by relentless dynamism and hypnotic charisma. He was also a master of what he once called “tricks, chicanery, intrigues, politics, and the Lord knows what.”5In 1757 he defeated the huge army of France’s ally Suraj-uddaulah, Nawab*1 of Bengal, employing as much bribery as force. The British put a puppet on the throne of Bengal and within four years they had crushed French opposition. Clive claimed to be, in the words of his motto, Primus in Indis.
The claim was premature. Despite Clive’s urgings, the East India Company was concerned with trade not empire. Like the British government, the Company had no wish to saddle itself with the administrative burden of ruling Bengal. This abnegation spelled catastrophe for India’s richest province, that fertile alluvial plain watered by the Ganges and the Brahmaputra which the Mughals had called “the paradise of the earth.”6 Since the East India Company had the power but refused to take the responsibility, its servants were free to act as tyrants. They had always been “hybrid monster[s],”7 private traders as well as public functionaries, and now they gorged on “Plassey plunder.”8 Clive himself garnered several hundred thousand pounds as well as a valuable jagir(annuity from land) and was famously astonished at his own moderation. Others extorted lavish presents, exacted vast profits and raised heavy taxes. They made fortunes comparable to those of great English proprietors or large West Indian planters. They outdid the “Roman proconsul, who, in a year or two, squeezed out of a province the means of rearing marble palaces and baths on the shores of Campania, of drinking from amber, of feasting on singing birds, of exhibiting armies of gladiators and flocks of camelopards.”9 Their opulence transformed Calcutta, denounced by Clive himself as a Gomorrah of corruption, into a city of palaces. In London, to quote Macaulay again, they inflated the price of everything from fresh eggs to rotten boroughs. The deluge of gold mohurs†2 shaken from the “pagoda tree” dazzled the whole world. In Corsica the young Napoleon Bonaparte dreamed of going to India and returning home a nabob. Bismarck in youth had much the same idea until he thought, “after all, what harm have the Indians done me?”10
Bengal was bled white. In 1765 its people were provoked into a desperate revolt, which ultimately enhanced the Company’s power through the acquisition of a crucial tax-collecting right from the Mughal Emperor. Indian revenues (which perhaps amounted to a billion pounds sterling between Plassey and Waterloo) spelled the redemption of Britain, said the Earl of Chatham. They were “a kind of gift from heaven.”11 But in 1769–70 Bengal descended into a hell of dearth. Millions died of hunger and some were driven to cannibalism. The famine wiped out a third of the population, their unburied corpses sating the appetites of vultures, jackals and alligators. Yet, though relief efforts were made, British “bullies, cheats and swindlers”12 continued to prey on the carcass of Bengal. Some profiteered in hoarded grain. Perhaps they were rendered callous by their own likely fate: about 60 per cent of the Company’s appointees died before they could get back to England. As the saying went, “two monsoons were the life of a man.”13One nabob told Clive, who tried to check the worst abuses, that having taken such risks he could not, when helping himself to a fortune, contemplate self-denial.14 The Governor of Bombay was typically self-indulgent and, being “more arbitrary than the King of England,” he had it in his power to “get as much money as he pleases.” So wrote Francis Pemberton, an ambitious young Company servant, who estimated in 1770 that “with his trafficking and everything else he saves £40,000 yearly.”15 However, individual rapacity on such a sumptuous scale undermined the East India Company’s own trade and threatened it with bankruptcy. Pressure mounted to establish a humane, honest administration in Bengal. In 1773 parliament passed a Regulating Act to bring the Company under partial government control. The new Governor-General, Warren Hastings, had the task of conjuring order out of chaos.
Although mocked as the clerk who sat on the Mughals’ throne, Hastings was the ablest Indian leader since Aurangzeb. He admired Indian culture, studied Persian and Urdu, and founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal. He also founded a Mahommedan College (madrasseh) in Calcutta to “soften the prejudices…excited by the rapid growth of British dominions.”16 And Hastings supported translations of Hindu classics such as the Bhagavad Gita, which would survive, he said, “when the British dominions in India have long ceased to exist.”17 He respected Indians in a fashion that was still quite common at a time when Englishmen were not ashamed to smoke hookahs, drink arrack, chew betel, attend nautches (dances), grow moustaches, hold cows sacred, wear Indian dress, dye their fingers with henna, wash by splashing in the Hindu manner, keep native mistresses (and even, on at least one occasion, get themselves circumcised to meet the religious requirements of Muslim women). Furthermore, Hastings thought that the best way to govern India was through Indian officials and according to Indian customs. “The dominion exercised by the British Empire in India is fraught with many radical and incurable defects,” he said. This was largely because distance made efficient control impossible. Only a system of indirect rule, through indigenous intermediaries, could extend what Hastings saw as Britain’s “temporary possession” of the subcontinent and “protract that decay, which sooner or later must end it.”18 However, there was a fundamental flaw in Hastings’s scheme—it diffused power. The only way to ensure good government, sound defence, fair tax-gathering and an equitable system of justice was to establish a strong central authority. Thus British involvement in Indian affairs increased willy-nilly and Hastings himself, a spindly figure with a bulging forehead, became something of an oriental despot.
He had no alternative in view of the host of difficulties which encompassed him. He got little but insatiable demands from home and had to endure prolonged opposition from his own Council, on which he could be outvoted. He faced the incompetence of insubordinate subordinates in Bombay and Madras, and the treachery of John Company’s grasping employees, who “to get a rupee would sell an army.”19 He was also confronted by the hostility of formidable Indian states such as Mysore. Hastings knew that it was a question of conquering or being conquered and that the Company’s trade depended on victory. So to preserve Britain’s position in India he extended its stake, following and setting a trend. His tenacity matched Clive’s audacity. And his methods were, if anything, more brutal. Hastings connived at the judicial murder of one maharajah. He despoiled rich provinces. To local rulers who could afford it, he even hired out his sepoy army, the best-trained force in India, equipped with firelocks and bayonets, obeying commands given in English, drilling to drums and fifes instead of tom-toms and trumpets, and clad in tasselled blue turbans, red jackets, white drawers and sandals. Hastings, it was said, would never “forgive an enemy” or “desert a friend.”20 Certainly he employed the patronage system to the full, making one crony “Persian translator to the Government”21 though he knew not a word of the language. Hastings also acquired a small fortune (tiny by Clive’s standards), sending £70,000 home in diamonds alone. The Governor-General was particularly indulgent towards his acquisitive and much-loved second wife Marian, who dressed like “an Indian princess,”22 braided her auburn ringlets with gems, and amused herself by throwing kittens into a bowl full of enormous pearls which slid under their paws when they tried to stand up. Yet he himself avoided ostentation. His throne was a mahogany chair, his finery was a plain brown coat and his palace was a modest country house at Alipore (reputedly still haunted by him). Hastings lacked imperial pretensions but he secured Britain’s empire in India.
On his return home, however, he fell victim to a change in the climate of opinion. The methods of the condottiere and morals of the nabob, which had produced ruin in America and spoliation in India, were now discredited in Britain. Hastings was impeached on charges of misgovernment and corruption. When his epic trial before the House of Lords began in 1788 there seemed every chance that he would be found guilty: “innocence does not pave his way with diamonds,” remarked Horace Walpole, “nor has a quarry of them on his estate.”23 Accusing the former Governor-General were the three most spellbinding orators of the day. Fox prosecuted Hastings as Cicero had prosecuted the corrupt praetor Verres. Sheridan said that nothing equal to Hastings’s criminality could be “traced either in ancient or modern history, in the correct periods of Tacitus or the luminous page of Gibbon.”24 Burke’s invective, stoked by Gibbon’s opinion that oriental luxury was fatal to empire, ran riot. Hastings was the “captain-general of iniquity,” who had tortured orphans and widows, and never dined without “creating a famine.” His heart was “gangrened to the core” and he resembled both a “spider of Hell” and a “ravenous vulture devouring the carcases of the dead.” Burke invested all his passion and imagination in the indictment, but his virulence actually provoked sympathy for Hastings. William Cowper was shocked by the martyrdom of a man who had “been greater and more feared than the Great Mogul himself.”25 Furthermore, as Britain was menaced by revolutionary France, Hastings’s achievement seemed more heroic than criminal. He had, as his counsel argued, preserved the British Empire “entire in India,” where it had been “convulsed and torn to pieces in other parts of the globe.”26 Perhaps rough measures were necessary, though it was not clear just how rough Hastings’s measures had been. This was due in part to witnesses such as his friend and client Mr. “Memory” Middleton, so nicknamed because of “his total want of recollection respecting any fact or circumstance which he conceived could tend to the prejudice of his patron.”27 Here was an early instance of the organised amnesia which so often obscured discreditable episodes in Britain’s imperial history. Finally, in 1795, Hastings was acquitted.
News of his victory provoked rejoicing in Calcutta, but although Hastings won the case he had long since lost the argument. Pitt’s India Act (1784) took political control away from John Company and vested it in the British government. The Act also prohibited further conquest in India and attempted to ban peculation, obliging holders of offices of trust in India to disclose the size of the fortunes they brought home. Hastings’s trial had dramatised Britain’s guilt over colonial oppression and the nation’s fear that it too might be corrupted by nabob methods and money. To enforce the reign of virtue Lord Cornwallis, held blameless for the surrender at Yorktown, was made Governor-General, with enhanced powers, in 1785. On him Henry Dundas, the Scottish minister known as “Harry the Ninth” who (it was said) stuck to Pitt as fast as a barnacle to an oyster shell and aspired to rule India from Whitehall, built all his hopes of the “salvation of our dying interests in Asia. Here was no broken fortune to be mended, here was no avarice to be gratified. Here was no beggarly mushroom kindred to be provided for—no crew of hungry followers gaping to be gorged.”28 Cornwallis lived up to expectations as a conservative reformer who established lasting standards of official probity. He abandoned Hastings’s scheme of partnership and tried to realise Burke’s notion of trusteeship, excluding Indians from all government posts at once but implying that the ultimate goal of the Raj was self-government. He subordinated rulers and ruled alike to a code of law, an achievement which made him worthy to be entitled the “Justinian of India.”29
As such Cornwallis was evidently bringing a kind of Roman order to barbarian chaos. Certainly Britons were more and more apt to regard Indians as uncivilised. Where they had once admired Hindu temples and Muslim tombs, for example, they now damned them as dens of vice and shrines of idolatry. This change reflected the growth of aggressive nationalism and missionary zeal during the 1790s. But even a liberal with a rare appreciation of the culture of the subcontinent, such as the oriental scholar Sir William Jones, could declare that its inhabitants were “incapable of civil liberty” and must therefore be “ruled by an absolute power.”30 This became the standard rationale for the British Raj. But Cornwallis himself was more aristocrat than autocrat. While acknowledging that his primary duties were to ensure the “political safety” of Bengal and to render its possession “as advantageous as possible to the East India Company and the British nation,”31 he adhered to the precept of noblesse oblige. Indians should be looked after, he thought, as befitted people who were backward, corrupt and incapable of much save low cunning. They were too far down in the human hierarchy to command respect or to hold any but minor offices—and even in such appointments, Cornwallis said, “preference should always be given to European settlers.”32 True, he awarded Indian zamindars (magnates) permanent tax-collecting powers in the settlement of 1793. But this was mainly because he reckoned, optimistically, that it would induce them to cherish rather than fleece the peasant cultivators (ryots, who were taxed directly in the south where the British hoped to make them yeomen farmers). In this, as in his other paternalistic endeavours, Cornwallis insisted, “the great object of our being here is to serve the [Indian] public at large.”33 Yet British interests must equally be served, as appears from Cornwallis’s expression of relief when rains averted a famine: “there is now I trust no danger of losing the inhabitants, or of much failure in the revenue.”34 The Governor-General was blinkered, unimaginative, racist and dull. But he was also honest, brave, humane and just. He embodied the Roman ideal of fair dealing and the British faith that character counted for more than intellect. He established the principle, which would be held sacred by the Victorians, that imperial power involved moral responsibility.
Cornwallis took many measures, such as improving gaols, reforming the coinage and suppressing child slavery, to ameliorate the Indian condition. But he concentrated most on the improvement of the white community. He was determined to make Britons fit to rule “in a country where a handful of them are to hold millions in subjection.” This meant cleaning out the “Augean stables” of the previous regime, which he denounced as “a system of the dirtiest jobbing.”35 And it involved a change in the prevailing opinion that every man who came poor from India was a fool, just as every man who came rich was a rogue. In place of “immense perquisites,” he insisted, officials should receive “large salaries.”36 And Europeans should live modestly: Cornwallis publicly rebuked military officers for “indulging themselves in habits of dissipation and expense.”37 He set a high standard of rectitude, refusing requests for patronage from everyone including Warren Hastings and the Prince of Wales. To one peer’s solicitation for a particular office the Governor-General responded tartly, “here, my Lord, we are in the habit of looking for the man for the place, and not the place for the man.”38 Yet even Cornwallis made judicious compromises. He did “little favours”39 for William Burke, Edmund’s cousin, and he relied on men with shady pasts. Among them was Charles Grant, who lauded “the goodness of God that [had given him] the power to get wealth” while damning “the offal of Hindoo morals,” and was understandably considered a “canting Presbyterian.”40
Nevertheless, Cornwallis succeeded in raising the tone of British society in Bengal where the East India Company had signally failed. It had long campaigned against the extravagance of its servants in India, their ostentatious chariots with outriders and running footmen, their gigantic meals serenaded by musicians and washed down with “an Atlantick of claret.”41 It had condemned sartorial excesses of the kind which prompted London friends of the silked and spangled diarist William Hickey to say that he looked like “the Lord Mayor’s Trumpeter.”42 The Company had even tried to inhibit the “sultanizing process” by imposing sumptuary regulations, which its employees evaded and ridiculed—one said that he did not think the ban on gold lace “was binding.”43 As this suggests, few who worked for the Company, itself a byword for avarice, respected it. When its directors objected to Hickey’s friend Bob Potts taking a “common prostitute” (his beautiful inamorata Emily) to India, he vilified them in standard fashion as “the cheese-mongering varlets of Leadenhall Street.”44 Cornwallis led by example. He ate and drank little, though he grew steadily more rotund. He worked hard and every morning he rode hard, following a routine like “perfect clockwork.” Spartan and stoical, he disliked flummery, refusing a diamond star after the defeat of Tipu, “or any other present.”45 He embraced duty. Explaining the removal of a Collector from his post, Cornwallis wrote: “his official misconduct was of such a nature, that I could not save him without marking a partiality which must have destroyed all respect for my government…mine is the duty of a rigid judge.”46
In fact, since the death of Cornwallis’s beloved wife in 1779—she had been buried, according to her own morbid wish, with a thorn tree planted over her heart—a vein of melancholy had suffused his character. He seemed to have renounced worldly ambition and under his influence Calcutta began to change. There was less drinking and more dancing, since now the gentlemen could often stand up after dinner. There was also less gambling, duelling and roistering. Fewer people committed suicide. Even the game of cricket became better organised. Official corruption so diminished that Dundas could tell Cornwallis, “we never before had a Government of India, both at home and abroad, acting in perfect unison together, upon principles of perfect purity and integrity.”47Cornwallis himself was less sanguine, informing Dundas that “there is scarcely a man to be found who has held any office of consequence, that has not been driven to make money in a manner which he ought to be ashamed of.”48 But there was plainly some improvement. After purveying supplies to General Abercromby’s forces in the war against Tipu Sultan, Francis Pemberton congratulated himself on having increased his fortune to more than £30,000 “in the most honourable manner; commissaries to so large an army as I have been with formerly wd. have gained ten times that sum.”49 So young rakes aiming to make huge fortunes in India might well now cry “Alas and alack-a-day” in earnest, whereas they had previously drunk to a punning version of that traditional lament: “A lass and a lakh*3 a day.”50
The fatherly governance of Cornwallis was most famously represented in Mather Brown’s painting of his reception of Tipu Sultan’s sons after the successful siege of Seringapatam, just north of the city of Mysore, in 1792. The Governor-General is shown, surrounded by a retinue of British officers, holding the boys’ hands while they gaze at him trustingly and their Indian attendants tamely submit to the custody. Although Brown never visited India and was intent on producing a scene out of oriental romance, his grand canvas does contain some truth. Cornwallis genuinely regretted that the “mad barbarian Tippoo has forced us into a war” and he conducted it with uncommon restraint. When his own troops burned two villages, the Governor-General condemned the “disgraceful outrages” as being fatal to “all our hopes of success” and liable to “blast the British name with infamy.”51 He left Tipu his throne, an act of reconciliation which mortified his officers: one expostulated, “At this rate we shall all be Quakers in twenty years more.”52 But if Tipu had been deposed or killed, the Governor-General argued, “we must either have given [his] Capital to the Marattas (a dangerous boon) or to have set up some miserable Pageant of our own, to be supported by the Company’s troops and…to be plundered by its Servants.”53 Moreover, Cornwallis really did treat the young princes with the “most benignant kindness.”54 As they arrived at the English camp outside Seringapatam, seated in silver howdahs on richly caparisoned elephants, escorted by outriders on camels, by their father’s vakils (envoys), and by a hundred marching pikemen and standard-bearers with green Islamic flags, the boys (aged eight and ten) were fearful. But when they dismounted, exotic little figures in white muslin gowns and red turbans, with rows of pearls round their necks from which hung large ruby and emerald ornaments set amid clusters of brilliants, Cornwallis embraced them “as if they had been his own sons.” At once their “faces brightened up”55 and he led them by the hands into his tent, where they were further cheered with gifts of gold watches, accompanied by betel nut and attar of roses.
Here, it seemed, was the best of British paternalism in practice. One of the congratulatory commentaries on Brown’s picture of the event salutes “the gallant Cornwallis” for “displaying to his captives a generosity which would have done honour to the brightest hero of the classic page of antiquity.”56 Yet Brown’s imperial icon, like the many other celebrations of this episode, is a fabulous piece of propaganda. It is imaginative in detail and idealised in concept, British moderation being contrasted with Asiatic extravagance. It also varnishes over the fact that Cornwallis was extorting vast territorial concessions plus a huge financial indemnity from Tipu. As the Governor-General himself reported to King George,
although the formidable power of Tipoo has been so much reduced by the events of a war into which we were forced by the ungovernable ambition and violence of his character, as to render it improbable that he can be able for many years to come to give any material disturbance to the British possessions in India, yet in the selection of the countries that are to be ceded to us, my primary object shall be to fix upon those…best calculated for giving us a strong defensive position against the future attacks of any power whatever.57
In the guise of guardianship, Cornwallis was using the princes as human pawns in a ruthless game of realpolitik. This, critics declared, was the fraudulent essence of imperialism. The charge that their Empire was a system of hypocrisy was one which irked the British because it came so close to the truth; in the long run, paradoxically, the only way that they could refute it was to try to make the Empire a system of magnanimity. The ultimate logic of the myth disseminated by Mather Brown and his tribe was that Tipu’s heirs would duly emerge from tutelage into a state of independence. But the immediate effect of unprecedented drum-beating over the defeat of Tipu, often called “the modern Hannibal,”58 was to encourage greater British belligerence in India.
A European cataclysm further aggravated that belligerence. Over the next few years the French Revolution became (in Shelley’s phrase) “the master theme of the epoch.”59 To check the spread of Jacobinism eastwards, the British felt bound to show less of the velvet glove in India and more of the iron fist. Otherwise, wrote Captain John Taylor in Bombay,
Adieu to power, influence and respectability, and, finally, Adieu to our possessions in the East. Not only the Marattas and [the] Nizam [of Hyderabad] will detest our incapacity and presumption; but every state in India, from the Mountains of Thibet to the Southern Peninsula, will be justly roused, and the disaffection of our Native Troops will finally dismember the Colonies of India from the British Empire.60
So British proconsuls, notably Lord Wellesley,*4 elder brother of the future Duke of Wellington, used the Jacobin danger, later compounded by the Napoleonic threat to advance on India from Egypt, as an opportunity to augment British power. Wellesley, a man of Olympian pretensions and Jovian passions, was Governor-General between 1797 and 1805. With the assistance of his brother Arthur, he conquered more territory in India than Bonaparte did in Europe. He became, in the words of a contemporary, “the Akbar of the Company’s dynasty.”61 Indeed, he ruled more of India than the Mughal Emperor had ever done, though this in itself caused concern at the East India Company’s headquarters in Leadenhall Street. One of the directors, Charles Grant, noted dourly, “It was the unwieldiness of the Mogul Empire that accelerated its fall.” He believed that “the wider British dominion in India spread, the more vulnerable it becomes.”62
By contrast Tipu Sultan maintained that the English gained complete control wherever they “fix[ed] their talons.”63 Ever since his defeat by Cornwallis, Tipu had dreamed—literally as well as metaphorically—of a “holy war” (jihad) of vengeance. He also sought allies, making eager overtures to Britain’s hereditary enemy and even permitting a Jacobin Club to be established at Seringapatam. Wellesley recognised Tipu’s irreconcilable hatred. He maintained that perhaps the principal object of Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition “was to satisfy the demand of Tippoo Sultaun for military assistance to the full extent of his wishes.”64 And he determined to make Tipu “renounce all connection with the French nation.”65 While honeyed words of signal insincerity passed between Calcutta and Seringapatam, Tipu was systematically demonised. The British represented him as a dangerous radical, the sympathiser with sans-culottes in France and the friend of “republicans in America.” He was also a “remorseless savage,”66 the oppressor of Hindus and the murderer of Christians. “The laws of Draco are tender mercies,” wrote one of his accusers, compared to Tipu’s legal code, which combined “the terrors of death with cold-blooded irony, filthy ridicule with obscene mutilation, the pranks of a monkey with the abomination of a monster.”67
Certainly Tipu was capable of cruelty and fanaticism, especially against those who refused conversion to Islam. As one English officer stated, “I have myself witnessed a sight of barbarity unknown in any civilized nation, where the unfortunate Hindoos have been hanged by dozens on trees by the road side.”68 With his “tawny complexion,” blazing eyes and “bloodthirsty” temperament, Tipu did much to earn his English nickname, the “Tiger of Mysore.”69 Indeed, he gloried in the alias, decorating his palaces and his furniture, his weapons and his armour, with tiger motifs. His troops wore striped uniforms and his walls were scarified by claw marks. His own throne, an octagonal musnud which rested on the back of a larger-than-life-size gold tiger, was embellished with jewelled tiger heads. The narrow passage to his bed chamber was guarded by four live tigers and Tipu often said that he would “rather live two days like a tiger, than two hundred years like a sheep”70 (a sentiment later echoed by Mussolini). Nothing better demonstrated Tipu’s ferocious nature, in British eyes, than his most celebrated arte-fact. This was a wooden tiger which, at the turn of a handle, roared while attacking a European soldier, who raised his arm and moaned despairingly. This monstrous mechanism was later put on show in London (where it may still be seen, at the Victoria & Albert Museum). Along with many other representations, such as theatrical versions of the “storming of Seringapatam,”71 it proclaims the beastliness of Tipu and the heroic character of England’s civilising mission.
Moral censure of Tipu Sultan did not come well from a nation which treated convicts and slaves so brutally and, in any case, it rather missed the mark. Seen in the context of South Indian kingship, the Tiger of Mysore was, if hardly tame, not altogether wild. Tipu was intelligent, cultured and witty. He possessed a library of two thousand volumes (carefully wrapped and placed in chests to protect them from white ants) which doubtless nurtured his passion for innovation. He was as fascinated by western technology as by eastern astrology, wearing on his person a gold fob watch and a magical silver amulet. His French-trained army was in some respects superior to that of the British. Tipu’s artillery was “both larger and longer than ours,” wrote an English officer, his “Rocket Boys are daring, especially when intoxicated by Bang.” The Sultan was altogether “a respectable and formidable enemy.”72 He was also notably fastidious. His chin was cleanly shaved in oil of almonds, and his muscular body, tending to corpulence but distinguished by delicate wrists and ankles, was regularly “shampooed” (i.e. massaged). A fine white handkerchief, a black enamel vase of flowers and a silver spit-box were placed close to his musnud, which faced Mecca. Although the court elephants were trained to make obeisance to him, Tipu dressed plainly, ate with restraint (for breakfast “an electuary composed of the brains of male tame sparrows”), and spent little time in his zenana. A keen hunter, “an incomparable horseman, a gallant soldier, an excellent marksman,”73 he was admired as well as feared. His subjects evidently did not see him as a tyrant or a bigot, and mourned his passing—many prostrated themselves before the bier and “expressed their grief by loud lamentations.”74 Even the caste-ridden inhabitants of Malabar’s spice coast seem to have preferred his rule to that of the British.
Mysore, a broad plateau where fertile grain lands, paddy fields and coconut groves sustained populous villages, flourished under Tipu, who introduced silkworms and sericulture. Seringapatam, an island sacred to Vishnu in the Kaveri River, was “the richest, most convenient and beautiful spot possessed in the present age by any native Prince of India.”75 Magnificent buildings sprouted amid tropical fruit gardens. Overtopping the white ramparts of the fort were the fretted towers of temples and the banded minarets of mosques. Within its walls, too, stood Tipu’s majestic new palace, embellished with zodiacal verses emphasising “the godlike superiority of the Sultan in his princely character.”76 Equally gorgeous were the floral arabesques adorning the teak interior of the Dauria Daulat Bagh, the Garden Palace of the Wealth of the Sea. This also contained a gigantic mural celebrating the victory of Hyder Ali, India’s Vercingetorix, over the British at the battle of Pollilor. Close to Hyder’s square, onion-domed mausoleum, with its arcade of polished hornblende columns and its ebony and ivory doors, was the Lal Bagh pavilion, set in a “garden of rubies.” Its huge red audience chamber was especially splendid, decorated with gold texts from the Koran and supported by rows of fantastically shaped pillars on black marble bases. But it was the treasure housed inside these edifices that really amazed the British. For Tipu surrounded himself with exquisite works of art, talismanic gemstones, filigreed weapons, gilt furniture, silk carpets, eggshell porcelain and Malabar muslins so fine that they seemed to be, as a Roman writer had said, “woven wind.”77
Thus Mysore was in every sense a prize when the British invasion culminated, on 4 May 1799, in the second and final victory at Seringapatam. To strike a blow against Tipu, the Governor-General had said, might “save crores of rupees and thousands of lives,” for it would stop the Sultan forming an alliance with France, which aimed to revive its “ancient splendour”78 in India. He stressed political rather than financial gains, victory not only winning sixty lakhs of rupees in additional revenue but establishing “on the most permanent foundations our power in the Deccan.”79 Yet lust for booty can hardly be overestimated as an imperial imperative—or as a source of native hatred. “Loot” was a Hindi word but the British soon adopted it. As the evidence has already suggested, most soldiers regarded plunder as a legitimate, if clandestine, perquisite. Their leaders set a bad example. Indeed, some of the Empire’s greatest military heroes satisfied ravenous appetites for the spoils of war. During the Second Afghan War (1878–80) General Roberts “sent off nine camel loads of loot before the Prize Agents were appointed.”80 After the second Ashanti expedition (1895–6) Major Baden-Powell carried away gold jewellery, a brass bowl supposedly used for catching blood in human sacrifices and King Prempeh’s hat. Following the battle of Omdurman (1898) General Kitchener’s men laid profane hands on even the most sacred objects, including the crescent from the dome of the Mahdi’s Tomb, today preserved at the Royal Engineers’ Museum in Chatham, and its copper-plated finial, which now adorns a turret at Blair Castle, seat of the Duke of Atholl. Kitchener himself instructed a subordinate to “loot like blazes. I want any quantity of marble stairs, marble pavings, iron railings, looking-glasses and fittings; doors, windows, furniture of all sorts.”81 In the chaos following the capture of Seringapatam, the army’s rapacity was equally unconfined.
Soldiers ransacked the Tiger’s fabulous lair. They raided the treasury, leaving a trail of gold pagodas across the floor. They stole rings, bracelets, necklaces and diamond aigrettes by the pocketful. They pillaged almost every dwelling. Tipu’s throne was broken up, though a couple of the best pieces—the gold huma bird of paradise that had perched on the pearl-fringed canopy and the largest gold tiger head, with moveable tongue and rock-crystal teeth—finally found a home at Windsor Castle. It was said that a redcoat had shot Tipu for the jewel in his turban or the gold buckle in his red silk belt. When his body was found, still warm, under a heap of corpses there were no ornaments about his dress—“a fine white linnen jacket, Chintz Drawers and a Crimson Cloth round his waist.”82 But he was still good for a final souvenir: a British officer took a penknife and cut off half the Sultan’s moustache. Arthur Wellesley, who himself defined plunder as “What you could lay your bloody hand on and keep,”83 stopped the looting by flogging and hanging miscreants. However, he did discover subsequent instances of British “villainy” which “would disgrace the Newgate Calendar.”84 Among them was extortion by torture and even murder. Yet the official rewards were bountiful enough: the army received prize money of well over a million pounds, Colonel Wellesley’s own share being £4,000. The Governor-General’s wife, meanwhile, was urging him to take the lion’s share of the Tiger’s precious stones. He replied indignantly: “How like a woman! I have never yet met a woman who did not think that a great public position was an opportunity to thieve.” Instead he struck a bronze medal showing the British lion overcoming the Mysore tiger. Eventually, though, he did accept a diamond star made from Seringapatam jewels and he permitted the Governor-General’s crimson and gold throne in Calcutta to be ornamented with bits of Tipu’s own musnud. Richard Wellesley was also rewarded with a step up in the peerage, though he remained permanently embittered by the fact that it was an Irish title, an “execrable Potato Marquessate.” Still, he did incorporate the sacred huma bird in his coat of arms. And he took his motto from the Aeneid: “Super Indos postulit Imperium”—He extended the Empire over the Indians.85
No Roman proconsul had more vaulting ambitions than Richard Wellesley and no Indian Brahmin had a fiercer pride of caste. Building on his triumph in Mysore, where he annexed some territory, appointed a puppet ruler and tried to emasculate Tipu’s sons politically by encouraging them to concentrate on concubines, Wellesley aimed to establish one paramount power in India. To a female friend he boasted, “I will heap kingdoms upon kingdoms, victory upon victory, revenue upon revenue; I will accumulate glory and wealth and power, until the ambition and avarice even of my masters shall cry mercy.”86 Wellesley would thus complete the rise of “an insignificant trading settlement to a mighty empire.”87
His main enemy was now the Maratha Confederacy, which posed a constant threat to British domination. This was not only because of its French connections but, in Wellesley’s view, because of “the treachery of the Maratta character.” More to the point, the Marathas were skilled irregular fighters and brilliant cavalrymen whose empire was “the empire of the saddle.”88 But the British had the advantage of superior organisation, discipline, weaponry and credit. They also possessed a general of genius, Arthur Wellesley, and a commander of “matchless”89 valour, Sir Gerard (later Lord) Lake. In one battle Lake had two horses killed under him as well as six or seven musket-ball holes in his hat and coat, and all this while being “four and twenty hours without claret,” something, wrote William Hickey, it was hard to believe he survived.90 Thanks to such heroism as well as diplomacy to match—a lot of it provided by Wellesley’s quartet of protégés, Thomas Munro, John Malcolm, Mountstuart Elphinstone and Charles Metcalfe—the British were able to divide and rule. They got direct and indirect control over a huge region between the Ganges and the Jumna. They also brought the Mughal Emperor Shah Aulum under the Calcutta government’s “protection.” He was now a blind, bedraggled and aged figurehead but he was still known as “Lord of the Universe.” In French hands, Wellesley wrote, his name might have been used “to justify exaction, violence and encroachment.”91 This was precisely what the Governor-General himself had in mind. In trenchant language the Edinburgh Review anatomised his “Roman policy”:
to take part in every quarrel; to claim the lands of one party for assisting him, and seize the lands of the other after beating him; to get allies by force, and take care nobody shall rob them but ourselves; to quarter troops upon our neighbours, and pay them with our neighbour’s goods.
Wellesley might represent his own aggression as a form of defence, the Edinburgh Review continued, but to warn that Napoleon was following in the footsteps of Alexander was like crying that “the Great Turk is come as far as Whitechapel.” It concluded with the solemn hope that Britons “seduced into Roman schemes of conquest abroad, will never be honoured with a triumph at home.” They should not be “permitted to suspend in temples of British structure, those inauspicious trophies which can be regarded as the spoils of British reputation.”92
In fact British governments tried to impress on Wellesley that scarcely any “military success” could justify breaching the “sacred principle” that Company specie should not be diverted to “the purposes of war.”93 Lord Castlereagh, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies (a suggestively hybrid office, thus titled between 1801 and 1854, accused not only of making war for colonies but against them), acknowledged that the British had necessarily passed from being “traders” to being “sovereigns” in India. But it was better to improve the territory already gained than to subdue the Marathas. Far from achieving security, as Wellesley argued, further conquest would bring the British Raj, Castlereagh said, “in contact with neighbours much more troublesome.”94 But as often happened in imperial history, local authority proved stronger than central government. Private enterprise flourished in a raj administered by a commercial company half a world away: even getting news from the Mediterranean, one minister complained, was like getting news from the moon; and in 1801 Wellesley in India was “seven months without receiving one line of authentic intelligence from England.”95 So neither Downing Street nor Leadenhall Street could stop the Governor-General from marching down “the splendid road to ruin.” A man of majestic littleness and “brilliant incapacity,”96 he added insult to injury by spending the Company’s money like water to establish himself in “Asiatic pomp.”97
In his servants and equipages Wellesley was extravagant to a “superlative degree.”98 He rode around Calcutta in a gleaming coach and six, escorted by a bodyguard of dragoons and a posse of outriders. He sailed the Ganges aboard a fairy-tale yacht, the flagship of a small flotilla, whose green and gold livery contrasted brilliantly with the scarlet habits of its crew. He began to create a country house at Barrackpore, a “villa of the Caesars”99 set in a beautiful pleasaunce, with such accessories as a theatre, a bandstand, an aviary and a menagerie. His most prodigal indulgence, though, was the new Government House on Esplanade Row, overlooking the maidan, the space cleared to give the guns of Fort William an open field of fire. Wellesley demolished the Governor-General’s old official residence, as well as the Council House and sixteen private mansions, some recently constructed. In their place he built a palace, modelled on Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire. That neo-classical pile, designed by Robert Adam, was much admired, though Dr. Johnson’s compliment was barbed—it would do excellently for a town hall. The new Government House, soon crowned with a huge, honey-coloured dome, was also too grand to make a comfortable home. Guests felt imprisoned or they got lost, since the living apartments were isolated in four vast colonnaded wings. Here they experienced space without room and luxury without comfort. There was not a water closet in the place and the food was always cold since the kitchens were situated two hundred yards down the road.
The building was, however, ideally suited to be the headquarters of an empire. The Marble Hall was modelled on a Roman atrium, with a coffered ceiling supported by Doric columns of gleaming white chunam (burnished stucco made from seashells), a grey marble floor and along the walls the busts of a dozen Caesars. Above it, on an equally impressive scale, was the pillared ballroom, floored with polished teak, flanked with huge looking-glasses and lit by “a profusion of cut-glass lustres.”100 The Augustan architecture was punctuated by coats of arms, captured guns, monumental lions and plaster sphinxes—two of the last had their breasts cut off when an aide-de-camp thought the Governor-General “might be shocked by their exuberance.”101 (This was a gross misjudgement, since Richard Wellesley was prone to such flagrant promiscuity that his brother Arthur, himself to be caricatured straddling an erect cannon, wanted him castrated.) The Directors of the East India Company did not go that far but the unexampled magnificence of Government House, which cost £170,000, caused exquisite pain in Leadenhall Street. Wellesley claimed that the building was essential to the Governor-General’s health in a debilitating climate. He himself suffered from boils (“horrible leprosy”) and haemorrhoids, complaining to his wife: “I have been reduced to a skeleton, yellow, trembling, without appetite, unable to sleep, too weak to walk twice round the room.”102 But he would undoubtedly have agreed with Lord Valentia’s famous justification for the splendour of Government House. Effortlessly combining racial prejudice and social snobbery, Valentia took the standard view that orientals would despise revelations of a “sordid mercantile spirit” whereas they would be awed and dazzled by a theatre of power. “In short,” he concluded, “I wish India to be ruled from a palace, not from a counting-house; with the ideas of a Prince, not those of a retail dealer in muslins and indigo.”103
Wellesley had an even more pronounced contempt for the cheesemongers of Leadenhall Street since he was never hampered, as they supposedly were, by “the craven fear of being great.”104 On the contrary, he made every effort to enhance the Governor-General’s quasi-regal status. He disdained even the most puissant maharajahs, calling the Nizam of Hyderabad “a twaddler of order high.”105 Yet he insisted that Indian potentates should receive him like a “Tutelary Deity,”106 with the full panoply of gold chobdars (mace-bearers) and jewelled elephants. According to Charles Metcalfe, Wellesley entered Lucknow in such majestic state that he “completely beggared”107 Gibbon’s description of the Emperor Aurelian’s Roman triumph, which featured the wealth of Asia, 200 exotic beasts, 1,600 gladiators, a vast train of barbarian prisoners and the captive Queen Zenobia chained with gold and swooning under the weight of diamonds. Wellesley also held durbars (levees) so that “the nobles of Hindostan [could] come in all their barbaric pomp to pay their respects at the Viceregal Court.”108 Otherwise he excluded Indians from social functions as Cornwallis had debarred them from official positions. Indeed, he held himself totally aloof. “I stalk about like a Royal Tiger,” he wrote, in “magnificent solitude.” The army of major-domos, butlers, footmen, bodyguards, silver stick carriers, fan wavers, bearers, messengers and other attendants was evidently invisible.
The Governor-General also shunned the society of his white subjects. They were “so vulgar, ignorant, rude, familiar, and stupid as to be disgusting and intolerable; especially the ladies, not one of whom, by the bye, is even decently [good-]looking.” (The “want of a decent looking woman” was a frequent complaint in a climate that soon turned blooming girls into leathery memsahibs known as “painted corpses” those in Calcutta were said to be “such a set of cats that have been withering away these last ten years.”)109Anyway, Wellesley felt compelled to entrench himself “within forms and ceremonies, to introduce much state into the whole appearance of my establishments and household, to expel all approaches to familiarity, and to exercise my authority with a degree of strictness and vigour amounting to severity.”110 Wellesley also laid down the law in hectoring tones. He established Fort William College to instruct Company servants in their duties. He prohibited horse-racing on Sundays. He banned comfortable white linen in favour of formal cloth jackets—worn in such heat that diners longed, like Sydney Smith, to “take off our flesh and sit in our bones.”111 Wellesley’s vanity and arrogance, reflected in the insolent tilt of his strong chin and the freezing glance of his blue eyes, alienated everyone but his acolytes, who extolled his charm. Yet in asserting his position at the apex of the social hierarchy, he was only doing to Britons what they were doing to Indians.
The growing estrangement of the two communities was symbolised by the gulf between the “princely” opulence of white Calcutta and the wretched condition of its so-called “Black Town.” Most people sailing up the muddy, fast-flowing Hooghly for the first time were struck by “the stately forest of masts,” worthy of the Port of London, and by the succession of “elegant classic built houses adorned with luxurious plantations.” They also admired the handsome octagonal Fort, its flag flying and drums beating, which was reminiscent of Vauban’s citadel at Valenciennes, “regular, majestic and commanding.”112 The Chowringhee, the main avenue across the maidan from Fort William, was “an entire village of palaces.”113 Most of them were constructed in the Palladian style with pillared verandahs and balustraded roofs, as well as “porticoes, domes, and fine gateways.”114 In Wellesley’s time the buildings grew ever more imposing and when Bishop Heber arrived in 1823 he was reminded of St. Petersburg. Even the dead dwelt in style. Park Street Cemetery, a necropolis so busy that the chaplain from St. John’s Church who conducted burials received a special palanquin allowance of thirty rupees a month, was an extraordinary architectural agglomeration. It was crowded with urns, obelisks, columns, sarcophagi, Ionic temples, mausoleums built in imitation of Muslim tombs, and pyramids, the tallest of which was modelled on that of the praetor Caius Cestius in Rome. (This “wedge sublime…Like flame transformed to marble,” as Shelley called it in Adonaïs, overshadowed the English Cemetery where Keats lay and possessed a strong appeal to the Romantics; Turner’s twilight picture of the pyramid illustrated the title page of Byron’s Life and Works.) All told, European Calcutta was reckoned “not only the most beautiful city in Asia but one of the most beautiful in the world.”115
Yet like other British enclaves it was also a city under siege. The Grim Reaper was always in attendance, especially during the hot season when the sun could broil meat on the cannon of Fort William and people sheltered under umbrellas even from the rays of the full moon. Nature constantly encroached. At night tigers padded behind the Chowringhee and by day they were “often bold enough to leap on boats”116 plying near the shore. Jackals, hyenas, vultures and pariah dogs scavenged the streets, though none rivalled the strutting adjutant birds. These were giant cranes which disposed of “astonishing quantities of putrefactive offal”117 and could swallow a calf’s leg, iron-shod hoof and all; so vital was their cleaning role that cadets at Fort William were warned that anyone injuring them would be guilty of “gross misconduct.”118 Government House provided a roost for them, as for monkeys, civet cats, flying foxes, bats, crows, kites and flocks of bright green parakeets. Some of these creatures infested the house itself, especially during the monsoon, when they might be joined by frogs, lizards, snakes, ants, spiders, mosquitoes, moths, beetles and so many other flying, buzzing and stinging bugs that they covered surfaces like specimens on museum trays. There were no curtains in Calcutta lest they harbour scorpions or centipedes. Glasses were fitted with little pagoda roofs and candles were often placed in soup plates full of water in which myriad insects drowned. Guests whose imaginations were infected by the hypertrophy of the tropics complained of cockroaches “as big as mice” and rats the size of “small elephants.”119 Exposed to invasion from the animal kingdom, European communities seemed still more vulnerable to human incursions, and many saw the perils as twins.
Wellesley himself referred to the dusky swarms in white muslin over-flowing from the native quarter. This was socially remote but physically and psychologically ever-present. In contrast with the Roman regularity of the white city as depicted by such painters as William Hodges and the Daniells, it was a chaotic labyrinth of narrow, unpaved streets, pot-holed alleys, and foetid courts. Occasionally these were flanked by elaborate pukkah (brick) houses, belonging to landowners, merchants or businessmen (banias). But for the most part Black Town was a festering slum (bustee). It was a cluster of ramshackle bazaars, mouldering godowns, dingy tenements, and huts made of mud, straw and bamboo, not superior to the Irish cabin or “the rudest wigwam.”120 Black Town, itself hemmed in by jungle and swamp, literally leaned against the British capital. It also impinged in other ways. Wellesley was especially concerned about the danger of disease and fire spreading from the native quarter. The stench of cow byres, slaughterhouses, stagnant tanks and open sewers tainted the atmosphere of the whole metropolis, as did the smoke of dung fires and the aroma of spices, coconut oil and ghee (clarified butter, the invariable medium of Indian cooking). Religious processions along the Chitpore Road attracted such Hindu multitudes that “Christian gentlemen driving their buggies amongst them” lashed out indiscriminately with whips, causing some to fall in ditches “while others were trampled under foot.”121 Residents of smart villas on Garden Reach had to employ a servant full time to push floating corpses away from the bank and into the main stream of the Hooghly. Here they “moved up and down with the tide,” as many as a hundred passing any particular spot each day, “a prey to vultures perched upon them”122 and to pariah dogs which dragged them ashore. Other “nuisances”123—an English euphemism for faeces—were unavoidable.
If the British community could not isolate itself topographically, however, it increasingly accomplished a degree of racial segregation. The race barrier, indeed, had always been present, even among admirers of the East. Sir William Jones, for example, likened the experience of being “forced to borrow from a black man” to that of “touching a snake or a South American eel.”124 Similarly, William Hickey had to overcome feelings of “disgust” and “horror” before having sexual intercourse with a “black woman.”125 But by Wellesley’s time discrimination on grounds of race was becoming more institutionalised. A few eminent Indians continued to mingle “freely in the fashionable circles of Calcutta.”126 A handful of Britons felt that Hindu civilisation was not inferior to that of Europe and had “many native friends.”127 But most Indians, even those “who imitated the English by manners and rivalled them in literary attainments,” were kept out of white society. Often the excuse was that their habits were incompatible with those of Europeans. In particular “their notions and customs in respect to women must for ever exclude them from that intimate association with the ruling race in their domestic and private relations.”128 Essentially, though, the British sought to distinguish themselves as the dominant race, the ruling caste. This also meant shunning half-castes, “that forlorn race of beings,”129 as one missionary called them, then known as Indo-Britons or Eurasians (and later as Anglo-Indians). Eminent exceptions were admitted, such as the cavalry commander James Skinner. But there was no notion of Roman assimilation. There was no question of the Ganges flowing into the Thames as the Orontes had supposedly flowed into the Tiber. In this respect, as the historian R. G. Collingwood acknowledged, the British Raj was “utterly unlike the Roman Empire.”130
Interbreeding might be “the first step in colonisation,” as Lord Valentia said, “creating a link of union between the English and the natives.”131 However, it would be ruinous if continued and during the Regency period there was growing agreement that the products of miscegenation had to be ostracised. They could nevertheless remain “useful allies,” wrote John Malcolm, because their pride in ranking themselves as Europeans would overcome their humiliation at “every instance of scornful repulse.”132 In some respects, such as the matter of growing moustaches and eating curry, the rulers did come to resemble the ruled. But certainly by the Victorian age anything liable to blur the lines between the races was anathema. “The extreme horror which European ladies entertained of appearing to imitate the natives” and to look like “nautch girls,” wrote a visiting Englishwoman, caused them to banish “gold and silver from their robes.”133 Whereas a Frenchman among Indians says, “I am the first,” wrote a Gallic observer, “an Englishman, a thousand times richer and more powerful, says, ‘I am alone.’”134 The British were not guilty of injustice or wilful oppression but of “foolish, surly national pride,” said Bishop Heber. “We shut out the natives from our society, and a bullying, insolent manner is continually assumed in speaking to them.”135 British society took its tone from Wellesley, who treated even princely envoys with “mortifying hauteur & reserve.”136 Some Indians were intimidated by such overbearing behaviour. Many more were antagonised. In the words of an English visitor who believed that it was vital to conciliate the natives, “our proud and disdainful islanders…usually contrive to make themselves hated wherever they go.”137
Wellesley had provoked almost universal animosity by the time he was recalled in 1805. Even the aged, amiable Cornwallis, who was sent out to save the subcontinent by replacing him, took umbrage at all the pomp and circumstance. William Hickey famously recorded his response to the dazzling cavalcade that greeted him at the Calcutta landing stage.
CORNWALLIS (to his confidential secretary): “What! What! What is all this, Robinson, hey?”
ROBINSON: “My Lord, the Marquis Wellesley has sent his equipages and attendants as a mark of respect and to accompany your Lordship to the Government House.”
CORNWALLIS: “Too civil, too civil by half. Too many people. I don’t want them, don’t want one of them, I have not yet lost the use of my legs, Robinson, hey? Thank God. I can still walk, walk very well, Robinson, hey; don’t want a score of carriages to convey me a quarter of a mile; certainly shall not use them.”138
Cornwallis went on foot, only to be appalled at the Byzantine splendours of Wellesley’s palace. In the couple of months before his death Cornwallis tried to live less ostentatiously and, more important, he insisted on a reversal of his predecessor’s expansionist policy. He deplored the “frenzy” for “conquest and victory,” ordered a withdrawal from nearly all “territories on the west of the Jumna,” and denounced the view, championed by General Lake, that “a system of power was preferable to one of conciliation.”139
In practice the military authorities seemed bent on a system of exasperation. During the course of 1806 the Commander-in-Chief of the Madras army, Sir John Cradock, imposed fresh regulations on his sepoys, who were anyway ill treated and badly paid. In the name of smartness he ordered them to trim their moustaches “to a military pattern,”140 and to cut off their beards—for as long as wigs were worn facial hair was an object of ridicule in England, where it was seen as tragically appropriate that in his mad state George III should remain unshaven. Sepoys were also instructed to wear a new turban with a leather cockade, and to remove caste marks and earrings while in uniform. This sparked off a mutiny at Vellore, the most powerful fortress in the Carnatic and the granite guardhouse of Tipu Sultan’s sons. In the dead of night well-organised detachments of sepoys attacked the sleepy British garrison and killed a hundred officers and men. Britons were terrified that the instrument they had created to dominate the subcontinent would now destroy them. Eighty miles away in Madras the white community for “many nights together,” said the Governor, Lord William Bentinck, “went to bed in the uncertainty of rising alive.”141 Colonel John Malcolm wrote home to Wellesley, “Your Lordship knows I am no alarmist. This is the first time I have ever trembled for India.”142
The Vellore uprising was the most serious challenge to British power in India between the fall of Calcutta in 1756 and the Mutiny of 1857. It was quickly suppressed but the government agonised long and hard over what had caused it and who was to blame. The civilians accused the soldiers, who admitted that whiskers (though not the shape of moustaches) had “always been deemed sacred” in India.143 Cradock also acknowledged that the dress reforms could have reinforced “the common cry ‘that the next attempt will be to make the sepoys Christians.’”144 Certainly it was the height of folly to offend Hindu and Muslim susceptibilities at a time when “violent and implacable”145 missionary endeavour was persuading Indians that, as one put it, “you English have taken the whole country, & now you want the people to receive your religion.”146 It was, in any case, oft-expressed government policy “to adopt a system of universal toleration, and to yield to the local habits and religious prejudices of the several sects which compose our native army.”147 This did not prevent the founding of an Anglican diocese at Calcutta in 1813—it stretched from St. Helena to Sydney and its first bishop, Thomas Middleton, solemnly attacked the “fabric of idolatry,”148 which gained him no converts but instead a marble tableau in St. Paul’s Cathedral representing him blessing two young kneeling Indians. Nor did the Vellore Mutiny prevent the flouting of caste taboos in 1857, with far more disastrous results. But in 1806 the military could plausibly argue that the rebellion had much deeper roots. Evidence that it was, indeed, the fruit of a conspiracy in which Tipu’s sons were implicated had been brandished over the moated battlements of Vellore itself when the mutineers ran up the Sultan’s flag. This red and green banner, with the sun at its centre and its ripple of tiger stripes, was not an emblem of mutiny but an icon of independence. It represented what one of Cradock’s senior officers called “that implacable hostile spirit against European Dominion.”149 After the official inquiry Bentinck and Cradock were sent home. The regulations were withdrawn, as the Resident of Hyderabad advised, “to avert by conciliation…the dreadful extremity of a general insurrection.”150
It was a commonplace that Britain held India by a thread, which could snap at the slightest miscalculation. The colonial order, whereby Indians were denied economic advantage and political advancement, was deeply unpopular. Bengal villagers actually welcomed intolerant Baptist missionaries such as William Carey because they did not resemble other Europeans, “who were worse than tigers.”151 The brown man’s burden was oppressive and his resentment was summed up in the chant of John Malcolm’s palanquin bearers, whose meaning, when he discovered it, gave him wry amusement: “There is a fat hog—a great fat hog—how heavy he is—hum—shake him—hum—shake him well—shake the fat hog—hum.”152 Many Britons regarded the dominion of forty thousand Europeans over forty million Indians as not just precarious but “unnatural.”153 Some even detected in it “an element of the supernatural.” Lord Bryce would illustrate the uncanny power of the Raj with a story about a tiger which, having escaped from its cage in Lahore Zoo and resisted all attempts to lure it back, returned when its keeper “solemnly adjured it in the name of the British Government.”154 But a less happy ending to this smug fable, an ending red in tooth and claw, must have suggested itself to all but the most credulous Britons. Charles Metcalfe, for example, thought that a sudden insurrection could quickly dispel “the impression of our invincibility,” “unite all India,” and make “short work” of white supremacy. “Empires grow old, decay and perish,” he wrote. Britain’s Indian empire had reached “premature old age” and its life could only be prolonged with care.155 So for more than two decades after the Vellore Mutiny, the Raj was largely run according to Wellesley’s formula, as a despotism tempered by paternalism. Its rulers combined the old ruthlessness of Warren Hastings and the new sense of responsibility introduced by Cornwallis. And they tried to instil the faith of Wellesley, who had said that India must be governed not as an empire “of which the tenure is as uncertain as the original conquest and successive extension were extraordinary; it must be considered as a sacred trust, and a permanent possession.”156 This involved taking occasional savage reprisals (for example, shooting men from guns) and invariable repressive measures, such as controlling the Indian press, limiting freedom of movement and subordinating the rule of law to the convenience of the administration. It also involved territorial expansion, mostly at the expense of the Marathas in the north and west.
Once again official plunder, in the shape of tax receipts, paid for the conquest. Taxation, which raised £18 million a year at this time (a third of the peacetime revenue of Britain itself), was much more important than trade. Indeed, before John Company lost its commercial monopoly in 1813, India was said to be about as valuable a trading partner to Britain as Jersey, though the Company was on the way to creating what has been called the world’s first “narco-military” empire.157 It did so through a new triangular trade: Indian opium sold to China covered the cost of tea imports to Britain, which found a market in India for textiles and other products of the industrial revolution. Meanwhile, a third of the Indian government’s expenditure was devoted to the military, which gave Britain a priceless possession—a free foreign legion. India truly was “an English barrack in the Oriental seas.”158 The seas were entirely dominated by the Royal Navy after Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in 1805, though American privateers administered a few shocks. And during the Pax Britannica, the century of peace that followed Waterloo, this marine enterprise, described as “the first true multinational manufacturing corporation,”159 was rightly judged to be John Bull’s supreme weapon of war. But the power of his whale should not obscure the strength of his elephant. India contained a standing army that was financially independent of the parliament at Westminster. It consisted of 200,000 men: the same number as made up the twenty-five legions with which Marcus Aurelius defended the whole Roman Empire; a match for most contemporary European regular armies; thirty times larger than the force that the United States mustered to fight Britain in the war of 1812; but only a third of the size of Napoleon’s Grand Army which invaded Russia in the same year. Despite concerns about losing caste by travelling across the ocean, sepoys were first sent to fight abroad (in Sumatra) as early as 1789. They were subsequently deployed in the Moluccas (1795), Egypt (1800), Macao (1808), Mauritius (1809) and Java (1811). Indeed they continued to augment Britain’s military might, notably during the two world wars, until India achieved independence.
Preoccupied by the titanic struggle against the French Empire, the British naturally thought in terms of the mailed fist and the sinews of war. Anyway, military force seemed suited to a country which was, according to James Mill’s influential History of India(1818), cursed from end to end by Asiatic barbarism and entirely unfit for self-determination. Yet some Governors-General preferred conciliation to coercion as a means of bestowing on India what Harriet Martineau called “the blessing of our rule.”160 If this cant phrase does not hide the cruelty, selfishness and ineptitude of that rule nor should it conceal its justice, efficiency and benevolence. In many ways the British Raj was preferable to the Indian rajah. At least one rajah agreed, the liberal-minded theologian Ram Mohun Roy. He even hoped that India would “for an unlimited period enjoy union with England, and the advantage of her enlightened Government.”161 But he did not give the Raj much more than half a century, the same sort of timescale as that contemplated by Thomas Munro, who also talked of its being “maintained permanently.”162 Roy concurred with many of its other leading figures who said “openly that English supremacy cannot be eternal, and that it is a duty to humanity to prepare India to govern herself.”163 Britain’s civilising mission must have a finite goal and a positive outcome. So Roy favoured cooperation with those “far-seeing Englishmen” (many of them actually Scotsmen or Irishmen) who were promoting education and institutions in India to equip “the natives ultimately to take the government of their own country into their own hands.”164 Self-rule in India could no more be stopped in the long run than self-rule in Britain. Roy himself supported the extension of the British franchise so enthusiastically that he threatened to renounce his allegiance to the Empire if the Reform Bill of 1832 were not passed. Thus, even while the Raj grew as an armed autocracy, a microscopic strain of libertarian democracy was germinating within its frame. As a modern scholar writes, the Empire was “born with the genetic faults that would bury it.”165
Whatever India’s future, its crucial importance as Britain’s Asiatic auxiliary was established by the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Oddly enough, this did not mean that the subcontinent captured the British imagination. London clubmen yawned at stories of tiger-hunting and pig-sticking. The India bore became a stock figure of fun in English life and literature. The vast majority of Englishmen neither knew nor cared about the difference between “commissioners and chilumchees [metal basins], magistrates and punkahwallahs [fan-pullers], Indian colonels and brandy pawnees [brandies and water].”166 Even at Westminster, it was said, the outcome of a by-election in Falmouth aroused more interest than the fate of the Raj. “Parliament despises India,” wrote Mountstuart Elphinstone, “and would never dream of quarrelling with a Ministry about a few millions of black rascals who have no votes.”167 On the other hand, the value of the Empire’s garrison state was beyond doubt. India was the most imperial element in John Bull’s haphazard miscellany of overseas dominions, an empire within an empire.
Brobdingnag in thrall to Lilliput, the subcontinent confirmed Britain’s position as a global power. It conferred unique prestige on the ruling race. It provided jobs for suitably qualified young men—in 1809 Haileybury was founded to educate them, though students thought the College “rather a farce as far as learning was concerned.”168 According to an adage fashioned in the mid-eighteenth century and repeated for two hundred years, the loss of India would fatally tarnish England’s glory. It would reduce her to the status of a second-rate nation, on a par, it was sometimes said, with Belgium. It would render her “insignificant in the eyes of Europe and the world.”169 The danger of losing India, whether through internal revolt or external invasion, or perhaps as the result of a lily-livered abdication of imperial responsibilities, increasingly obsessed the British. As a result the so-called “defence” of the Raj became a matter of throwing out new ramparts and parapets, of occupying distant bastions and barbicans. Critics such as James Mill said that by extending its territory Britain was merely making new enemies. But the drive to safeguard India acquired a juggernaut momentum. And there seemed no limit to how far it could go. Disraeli would say that those who harped on threats to India consulted only small-scale maps (which was inevitable, as it happened, since there were as yet no large-scale maps of Central Asia). Lord Salisbury complained about soldiers who were intent on “garrisoning the Moon in order to protect us from Mars.”170
So the enormous imperial advances made as the struggle with France reached its climax during the decades after the loss of the American colonies were largely intended to protect India as a vital source of Britain’s strength. In response to John Company’s oft-repeated axiom that the Cape of Good Hope was “the Gibraltar of India,”171 Britain finally annexed it from the Dutch in 1806. The Mediterranean was another key route to be guarded—by means of “insular aggrandisement.”172 Malta, which Nelson thought “a most important outwork of India,”173 was occupied in 1800. Added to it were Corfu, the Ionian Isles and Sicily, which its temporary dictator, the former Governor of Madras Lord William Bentinck, dreamed of making “the Queen of our Colonies.”174 The Royal Navy’s influence spilled over the shores, from the Ottoman Empire to Tripoli, where the British Consul-General was the power behind the Pasha. Trade followed the flag and the Mediterranean virtually became Britain’s mare nostrum. Britannia also ruled the Indian Ocean, securing the French naval base of Mauritius (1810) and the Dutch trading station of Ceylon. The latter island was finally quelled by 1818, after a war of horrific brutality: the King of Kandy sent one group of Britons back to Colombo with their severed ears, noses and hands tied around their necks, an atrocity which was amply repaid in kind. The main prize was Ceylon’s superb harbour of Trincomalee, which looked like a tropical Lake Windermere and had a unique capacity to be “the grand emporium of Oriental commerce, the Gibraltar of India [another one], and the arsenal of the East.”175
The only haven to equal it within striking distance of the Coromandel Coast was Singapore. Sir Stamford Raffles, who had risen from humble beginnings in the service of the East India Company to become master of Java in 1811, quickly discerned Singapore’s unique potential. Raffles described himself as “meek as a maiden” but “insatiable in ambition,”176 and his main ambition was to destroy the Dutch Empire on India’s southeastern flank. It was brutal and corrupt, he maintained (not without reason), whereas the extension of British influence served “the cause of humanity.” As it happened Raffles himself was surprisingly indulgent towards Malay tribal customs that were by no means humane. The “Battas are not bad people,” he wrote, “notwithstanding they eat each other.” With apparent relish he reported that they sometimes grilled human flesh and sometimes devoured it raw, that they regarded the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet as “the delicacies of epicures,” that they bottled the brains of their victims “for the purposes of witchcraft,” and that he himself was forming a collection of the skulls of people who had been eaten.177 Nevertheless, Raffles saw himself as an agent of civilisation. He treated his subjects as a family of which he was head or feudal overlord: “The Chiefs are my barons bold, and the people are their vassals.” After 1815, however, Britain came to terms with the Dutch and returned Java. Simultaneously, for financial reasons, the East India Company drew in its horns. Raffles concluded that the only way to prevent the Dutch from regaining their old supremacy was to acquire Singapore, which he did (with the support of the Governor-General of India, Lord Minto) in 1819. Raffles had a vision that the little fishing village could become the crossroads of Asia, commanding the sea lanes between Europe and the Far East and opening up trade on an unparalleled scale. “I see no reason why China may not be, in great measure, clothed from England,” he declared.178Singapore could be both a grand commercial “entrepôt” and a political “fulcrum… what Malta is in the West.”179 It became the key link, attached to others such as Penang and Malacca, in a chain fence protecting India. Moreover, diplomatic and commercial agreements from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea provided the subcontinent with buttresses and bulwarks on an oceanic scale.
Wider still and wider were its boundaries set. Captain James Cook’s voyages of exploration (1768–79) were also voyages of exploitation. Of course, his geographical and medical discoveries (notably the defeat of scurvy) were wonderful achievements, for which he was portrayed as the saint with the sextant. He was also made a Fellow of the Royal Society—an accolade, said the President at the presentation, equivalent to Rome’s “civic crown.”180 But a major aim of Cook’s odysseys was to steal a strategic and commercial march on Britain’s European and American rivals in the Pacific. And one result of its being opened up was that European diseases killed over three-quarters of its population. Australia, furthermore, did not become a penal colony in 1788 just because America was no longer available as a dumping ground for felons. In the words of the Secretary of State, Lord Sydney, it would also “be a means of preventing the emigration of Our European Neighbours to that Quarter, which might be attended with infinite prejudice to the Company’s affairs.” Thus convicts would serve the Empire by deterring the French, outflanking the Dutch, providing naval supplies and strengthening the “strategic outliers about India.”181 In other words, Britain was “more interested in controlling Australian seas than Australian land,”182 though the port of Sydney, named after the minister responsible for the settlement, might become a staging post on the trade route to China. Even the New World was called in to augment the security of India. Whereas America’s motive for declaring war in 1812 was to protect its trading and shipping interests against the Royal Navy, which was blockading Napoleonic Europe, Britain defended Canada not only for its own sake but in order to preserve the éclat of empire. As Lord Elgin later said of the threat to Canada from the south: “Let the Yankees get possession of British North America with the prestige of superior generalship—who can say how soon they may dispute with you the Empire of India and of the Seas?”183
Expansion northwards did not interest Americans nearly as much as going west, stretching their own dominion to the Pacific. But the war of 1812 showed that they were already a formidable Atlantic power. And the Monroe Doctrine, promulgated in 1823, was not just a warning that European countries should keep out of North and South America: it was a declaration that the United States had imperial aspirations in both hemispheres. Considering the might of the Royal Navy, the British government regarded President Monroe’s pronouncement as a rhetorical impertinence. Anyway Britain had no intention of colonising Latin America, aiming only to monopolise its trade. As the Foreign Secretary George Canning said in 1824, “Spanish America is free; and if we do not mismanage our matters sadly, she is English.”184 The idea that commercial penetration could secure political influence without the trouble and expense of imperial occupation and administration increasingly attracted leaders of the first industrial nation. The benefits of freer trade were already apparent in Britain’s rapprochement with the United States, which was taking up to 40 per cent of its exports (and 80 per cent of its emigrants) by the 1840s.
What is more, the Great Republic, with its democratic institutions and its libertarian traditions, provided a model of how Britain’s colonies of settlement could evolve. If India might expect to be self-governing inside a century, Canada might anticipate independence within decades. If mankind really did progress from east to west, as Thoreau said, Australia could eventually strike off its shackles. Its pioneers were certainly self-confident. In 1803 the British attempted to plant a penal colony near modern Melbourne, on the strategic Bass Strait. Enduring furnace heat, swarms of biting flies, near-starvation and near-mutiny, the tiny community of convicts and guards clung to the barren shore for only a few months before sailing to less inhospitable Tasmania. Yet during that time Lieutenant James Tuckey had a vision of how outcasts were building in Australia an empire which would supersede those now in the ascendant but doomed to decline and fall. “I beheld a second Rome rising from a coalition of banditti. I beheld it giving laws to the world, and superlative in arms and in arts, looking down with proud superiority upon the barbarous nations of the northern hemisphere.”185