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The Banality of Empire

The British in India: Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience
by David Gilmour
Allen Lane
640pp
Published September, 2018
ISBN 9780241004524

The Sydney Review of Books and Public Books have partnered to exchange an ongoing series of essays with international concerns. Today’s essay, ‘The Banality of Empire‘, by Katherine J. Anderson, was originally published by Public Books on 2 January, 2019.

One of the basic paradoxes of British imperialism is that even as it relied so fundamentally on violence, it insisted on presenting itself as opposed to violence, indeed as dedicated to stamping it out. In 1856, a London newspaper called the Examiner insisted that ‘wherever there are Europeans, no matter whether officials, merchants, or missionaries, there is certainly no torture.’ The claim brought together a tripartite justification for the British occupation of India: the spread of liberal government, global capitalism, and Christian religion to a society allegedly in need of them. The British were in India to prevent torture, the newspaper implied, dispersing sweet Western enlightenment where barbarism had reigned supreme. Yet the Examiner only made such a sweeping defensive statement because a recent government scandal had suggested the opposite was true: Indian subjects had been tortured under British rule.

In 1854, several members of Parliament had claimed that Indian officials working for the British government in Madras had resorted to torture while collecting the British land tax from local peasants. Three commissioners were appointed by the British government to determine the truth of the accusations. After interviewing alleged victims and witnesses for seven months as well as sifting through written evidence, the commissioners determined the accusations were based on fact. Their findings were published widely in Britain, sparking heated debate about whether or not British officials—particularly the district officers who served simultaneously as tax collectors and magistrates in India—could be held accountable for torture. Was it possible, the British considered, that they were themselves the agents of violence and brutality in India?

David Gilmour’s latest book, The British in India: A Social History of the Raj, deliberately refuses such questions of accountability, choosing to linger over the individual lives and identities of British folk in India and to ignore the institutional structures of British imperialism during roughly 350 years of rule. The author believes ‘that writers of social history should attempt to write impartially about customs and behaviour even when [they] find them abhorrent,’ he explains in his introduction, and his chief interest lies ‘in the motives and identities of British individuals in the Indian territories.’ He really just wants to know ‘who these people were and why they went to India,’ ‘what they did and how they lived when they got there,’ and ‘what they thought and felt about their lives.’

On the surface this seems a worthy endeavour, one that allows historical sources to speak for themselves—when many of the postcolonial scholars and impassioned college students currently calling for decolonization would silence them entirely. In their attempts to expose and abandon the toxicity of Western imperialism, these decolonizing efforts often threaten to oversimplify much of Western history.

But Gilmour’s approach comes with a dangerous oversimplification of its own. To claim the luxury of avoiding arguments about empire in order to focus solely on white social life is once again to turn that white life into our only social reality. Such a move is comforting to some of us, of course, because ‘just’ enjoying history, minus a political angle, absolves us of any responsibility to grapple with the complexity of imperialist history.

This particular ‘single story,’ as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie might refer to it, allows us to forget about white guilt and focus on the good old days when history itself, like many realist novels of the British 19th century, was the story of white bourgeois everyday life. It also allows us to forget the implications of such a life for the people peripheral to the story. Gilmour’s book glosses over the voices of Indians who were affected by everyday British life in India, and entirely ignores the fact that it was the banal business of those everyday British lives that built and sustained the Empire and its atrocities.

An eminent historian, Gilmour draws on over 30 years of research to show us the multifaceted and deeply intimate experiences of everyday individual lives. The British in India is magisterial in scope; Gilmour details not only the ‘Working Lives’ of everyone from planters and missionaries to judges and district officers in their lonely outposts, but the ‘Intimacies,’ ‘Domesticities,’ and ‘Formalities’ of those lives as well. Deep dives into little-known archives—letters, diaries, and memoirs as well as more official government documents—highlight the nuances of British social life in India.

Gilmour is more concerned with providing a glimpse into individual lives than with reconstructing the stock British ‘types’ that set up shop in India: the administrator, the soldier, the missionary, and so on. As he says in his account of three different but all somewhat unusual British women, for example, he read their letters because ‘they were interesting and well written and seemed to deserve the time required to go through them,’ not because ‘they might offer an alternative view of the stereotypical memsahib’—although, of course, they do that too.

The book thereby showcases the historian’s fascination with the tantalizing half-stories of unknown lives, giving voice to ordinary people long buried in the archives, though occasionally to such an effect that it leaves the reader frustrated and wanting more. ‘When Captain Cautley, the engineer on the Ganges canal, found out that he was not the father of his wife’s twin babies,’ we’re told, he ‘immediately began divorce proceedings.’ But how did he find out? Who was the father? What happened to his wife and her twins after the divorce? Gilmour leaves these and many similar questions unanswered.

The book does live up to its promise of a specifically social history grounded in individualism rather than a political argument about imperialism. But ultimately this means that Gilmour tries to have it both ways: he wants to focus on individualism but ignore the ethical responsibility of the individuals in question. As a result, he ends up implicitly supporting what we might call, with a nod to Hannah Arendt, the ‘banality of evil’ rationalization of British Empire.

If we ignore the ‘framework of imperialism’ entirely, yet insist that ‘much of the British-Indian relationship … was accidental,’ as Gilmour does, who’s left holding the bag? The version of imperial social history put forth here suggests that the individuals it focuses on were simply doing their jobs to the best of their ability where they happened to end up: in India. ‘Most British people did not go to India to conquer it, govern it or amass a large fortune’; instead, ‘chance or unexpected circumstances’ brought many of them there, Gilmour declares, echoing historian J. R. Seeley’s airy claim in 1883 that the British ‘seem, as it were, to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind.’ A lack of malicious intent, however, is not the same as a lack of responsibility, and an ordinary person simply bent on completing day-to-day assigned duties can perpetuate atrocities.

There are a few predictable moments when Gilmour dutifully concedes the wickedness of empire. Though the British may have had reasons for their ‘sickening bloodlust and brutality’ in response to the 1857 Indian Rebellion, he admits that those reasons ‘were not excuses for revenge on such a scale’ and the ‘retribution was a terrible crime, the worst thing the British did in India.’ Despite this acknowledgement of specific atrocities (he also deals with the Amritsar Massacre of 1919), Gilmour’s book by deliberate design refuses to link more ordinary British lives and actions in India to overarching imperialist goals. In fact, ordinary British individuals were ‘just doing their jobs’ in India precisely because those jobs were required to propel Britain’s increasing move toward global capitalism.

The banality of everyday life in British India was the machine of empire, and the Madras torture scandal with which I opened this essay is a case in point. In Madras, as in other parts of British India, the generic description ‘district officer’ encompassed a role for which, according to Gilmour, there are ‘two crucial dates: 1786, when he became responsible for the assessment and collection of land revenue, and 1831, when his powers as a magistrate were strengthened.’ Thereafter, ‘he possessed a dual persona with separate offices.’ The British district officer, and the Indian officials hired to assist him as policemen, had to do double duty: to collect taxes and to keep legal order. Officials turned to torture as a means not only to extract criminal confessions on the police side of things, but also as a way to extract revenue on the tax collector side.

As the British commissioners who investigated in Madras later reported, the tax collectors ‘who tortured the most’ were ‘deemed in public estimation the most efficient’; for these officials, the evils of torture were a necessary means to get a professional job done, not a brutal, uncivilized form of control. This Indian tax revenue fueled the British state’s increasingly capitalist endeavors to assert global power, thereby preventing the state’s collapse as well as its Empire’s.

Of course, the majority of the district officers and other British officials denied culpability during Parliament’s investigation into tax-related torture, claiming ignorance and laying the blame upon their ‘corrupt Indian policemen.’ Yet some British individuals in India did acknowledge that torture was happening, and called for British accountability. Gilmour fails to mention this controversy during his extended discussion of the working life of the district officer, even when acknowledging that the ‘spread of [the officer’s] responsibilities was too wide’ and asserting that ‘he had to rely for much of his evidence on corrupt Indian policemen.’ The omission is indicative of the ways in which the book’s alleged lack of argument actually shores up the racist assumptions of some 19th-century Britons and their accompanying justifications for Western imperialism, while simultaneously foreclosing any consideration of the contrasting opinions of their more progressive peers.

Though Gilmour refuses to present an analytical argument, a refusal he characterizes as avoiding the ‘political’ in favor of prioritizing the facts of the social archive itself, he still presents an argument: one rooted in emotion. There’s nothing troubling about our persistent attachment to 19th-century narratives of white lives at the height of Britain’s imperial power, his tome implies. Nostalgia for this cozy, familiar, somehow comforting (for white people, at least) past world, and the 640 pages it takes to detail it, is well worth our time and energy. In a way, Gilmour morphs into an academic Julian Fellowes. Reading this book is the social historian’s version of binge-watching—and wallowing in—Downton Abbey, or perhaps more precisely, the first season of fellow Masterpiece presentation Indian Summers.

Overall, The British in India reads not so much as a successful call for more rigorous public engagement with the nuances of empire’s history as it does a retreat back into the arrogant position of a scholar who has never felt it particularly necessary to justify his interest in the everyday lives and literature of white people (racist or not), to the exclusion of all else. His admonishment for postcolonial scholars to spend ‘more time in the archives’ raises the question of which archives he sees as valuable, given the scarcity of Indian voices in his social history. Even when including Indian critics of the British Empire, Gilmour tends to highlight their careful rhetoric without acknowledging the power structures that might have forced them to soften their statements. He quotes Nirad Chaudhuri, a Bengali writer, for example, as explaining that the British were ‘essentially ‘a brave and kindly people’’ who ‘became offensive in India’ ‘partly because their numerical inferiority made them always nervous of revolt, and partly because the climate drove them to extremes of thought, habit, and behaviour.’

Perhaps more troublingly, Gilmour’s own writing style mirrors the paternalistic opinions of his British subjects on more than one occasion. ‘The White Man’s Burden,’ Kipling’s famous poetic admonishment to the United States in 1899 to annex the Philippines, included the following stanza:

Take up the White man’s burden—
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard—
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah, slowly!) toward the light:
‘Why brought ye us from bondage,
Our loved Egyptian night?

For Kipling, the spreading of liberalism, capitalism, and Christianity via imperialism was a burdensome task in its own right, the Western parent nation’s duty to her Third World ‘children,’ but sharper than the servant’s tooth were the ungrateful accusations of those children who had reaped the benefits so distributed.

Gilmour, whose previous work includes a biography of Kipling, expresses related sentiments, seemingly without irony. ‘Rid of the encumbrance of empire,’ he writes of life after Partition, ‘Britons could enjoy and appreciate India without having to apologize for being there.’ It’s no great leap to assume that the rhetoric of ‘The White Man’s Burden’ underpins this and similar sentences, and that Gilmour, like his British subjects, seeks to rid his book of the encumbering complexities of empire so that we can all enjoy and appreciate British social lives in India without having to apologize for that enjoyment. It’s really so much simpler that way.

The British in India arrives at a time when the question of how to ethically and self-reflexively teach the history and literature of Western imperialism looms large. What do we owe to those of us who have been othered for so long? What versions of the past will acknowledge and validate previously silenced voices? In an effort to step back from a canon comprised primarily of the historical and literary viewpoints of white men, and to challenge the power hierarchies represented and reinscribed in that canon, college students often wish to dismiss entirely the kinds of white British lives that Gilmour explores. In my experience as a professor of British literature and culture, many students are increasingly unwilling to allow for any nuances in what they view as a unilaterally ‘racist and toxic’ society and its racist presentation of history. Such a position is of course too easy: a vast oversimplification that stops thinking before it starts. Despite—indeed, perhaps because of—their culpability in the record of Western imperialism, those lives are worth considering in our efforts to learn from history and advance social justice on a global scale.

Sadly, the fundamental and arguably fundamentalist refusal to engage history and literature on their own terms, with a careful analytical eye, is a position that’s become all too common in our contemporary moment, and liberal as well as conservative students have fallen victim to its allure. Gilmour shares his own discomfort with what he sees as the similarly ‘cocksure and sweeping but also fundamentally anti-historical’ arguments of his late friend Edward Said, which for Gilmour fail because they cast judgment on ‘the past from the zeitgeist and morality of the present.’ Whether or not we agree, then, with his categorization of Said’s work, Gilmour’s response in part allows ‘the men and women in these pages to come before the lens, to speak their lines and walk about the stage without too much direction’ in order to curtail the evolving impoverishment of modern intellect.

In the current political climate, there is a dangerous comfort in simplicity, and a contagious temptation to discard nuance in the quest to define what is truth, what is right, and what is reality. Recently I listened to a podcast episode in which the hosts discussed a Katy Waldman article for the New Yorker on President Trump’s obsession with the word ‘frankly.’ The podcast’s hosts ultimately suggested that what they called a ‘tyranny of authenticity’ undergirds the logic of the ‘white man in quotes’—their term for ‘THE white man,’ in the abstract—as represented by President Trump. It is, for Trump and white men like him, as if the white man’s thought ‘equals truth—if you question it or disagree with it,’ it is because you are experiencing a ‘lack of grasp on reality.’

Trump’s use of the word ‘frankly’ indicates his own sense that ‘he’s revealing the obviousness,’ thereby assuming the obviousness in ‘things that are in fact often very complex.’ The point, for Trump, is to assert that ‘any introduction of complexity to anything is not nuance, it’s obfuscation,’ and for the podcasters, this was the real problem, because some things are in their very nature complex, and we cannot will that complexity away in order to establish a comforting, simple (black-and-white, if you will) explanation of the way the world works.

There is a similar attempt to equate ‘truth’ with ‘uncomplicated’ on both sides of the current academic debate over how to teach the history of Western imperialism. We face the dangers of a single story either way, whether in the impatient students’ cries to discard any remaining remnants of ‘toxic’ history told from a Western perspective in homage to the greater god of decolonization, or in Gilmour’s testy insistence that ‘British imperialism in India was not always quite so bad as its detractors (especially the home-grown ones) have claimed.’ History, social or otherwise, is not impartial. It is always a construction. To fail to acknowledge this in service of some inherent, obvious truth is dangerous and irresponsible.

Gilmour is right: it is a reductive simplification to define the British role in India as, in Joseph Conrad’s words, ‘just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale.’ But it is no less reductive, and perhaps even more dangerous, to binge on gauzy ‘stories’ of individual lives in service to a wistful nostalgia for a simpler reality that never existed in the first place.

The Sydney Review of Books and Public Books have partnered to exchange an ongoing series of essays with international concerns. Today’s essay, ‘The Banality of Empire‘, by Katherine J. Anderson, was originally published by Public Books on 2 January, 2019.