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Some dates stick in the historical gullet. By the British in India, 1757 would be remembered for the great unfought battle at Plassey (Palashi) and 1764 for the much bloodier encounter at Buxar (Baksar); together they launched the East India Company’s remorseless advance into Bengal and beyond. In similar fashion, 1799 saw the end of Tipu Sultan’s Mysore-based empire, while 1802 brought the Company’s arms to the gates of Delhi. But then there comes a gap. The pace of conquest slackens to allow for—well, for what? Mopping up operations? The mass arrival of the memsahibs? Financial retrenchment? The next big date is not till the uprising of 1857. Somewhere in between, the year 1818 slips past quite unremarked. Apart from the defeat of the Marathas, it’s hard to think of anything at all that happened in it. Most of India, wrote the contemporary Sir John Malcolm, “was for the moment satisfied to be at the feet of generous and humane conquerors...; halcyon days were anticipated”.
Yet change, the stuff of history, is no slave to the chance of battle; uneventful years can be just as epoch-making as memorable ones—1818 merits a second look. According to Penderel Moon, doyen of British India’s historians, it was the year in which “the Pax Britannica began”.
An age of conquest was drawing to an end. Sixty years of erratic intervention had left the East India Company undisputed master of all that lay between the Hooghly and the Sutlej. From the south, surveyors of the Great Trigonometrical Survey were pushing their Great Arc measurement of the subcontinent north into the territories of the Nizam of Hyderabad en route to the Himalayas. Augmented by 2,00,000 regular British troops and a formidable navy, the Company’s British-officered sepoy army had grown to a quarter of a million. It was invincible. The Marathas, even if united, posed no serious challenge; nor did the young Sikh kingdom of Ranjit Singh, who in 1818 moved to evict the Afghans from Kashmir. Three years earlier, Napoleon, the man who had lent some geostrategic logic to the British military build-up in India, had been defeated at Waterloo; he was now incarcerated in the island of St Helena. No other European power challenged the British in the East. “We seem, as it were, to have conquered half the world in a fit of absence of mind,” was how the essayist J.R. Seeley would put it. For a nation poised on the cusp of empire, it was a moment to take stock and consider why they were there and how long they should stay.
Answers were already to hand. One school of thought was represented by James Mill, whose three-volume A History of British India first went on sale in 1818. Mill had never been to India and he was not ashamed to say so. He devoted five thousand words to persuading his readers that, far from being a handicap, lack of first-hand experience and ignorance of any Indian language were in fact advantages. Verbose and often plain wrong, a duller work than his history may never have been written. Yet, it sold well and was quickly expanded into six volumes. At the time, it was the only history of its kind; indeed, to many it constituted the first clear evidence that there was a ‘British India’.
The author, like his son John Stuart Mill, was no apologist for the state monopoly that was the East India Company. Nor, though, was he enamoured of Indian rulership. The best argument for the British presence, he claimed, was the tyranny and barbarism that had preceded it. India must be acquainted with civil liberties and the rights of the individual. In particular, the “abominable existing system” of Indian law must be replaced with British principles of justice. Mill was associated with a group of reforming London radicals known as the Utilitarians. Led by Jeremy Bentham—whose ‘utility’ principle was famously aimed at promoting “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”—the group included William Wilberforce, the anti-slavery campaigner. Like Mill, Wilberforce knew nothing of India. He nevertheless declared Hindus “the most enslaved portion of the human race” and their religion “the most enormous and tormenting superstition that ever harassed and degraded...mankind”. Clearly, British rule could be justified only if it extended to Indians the enlightened government and institutional safeguards enjoyed by their foreign rulers.
This was music to another vocal lobby. Five years earlier, in 1813, India’s first Anglican bishop had been appointed. His diocese was large—it included most of Africa as well as Asia—and his main task was to minister to British Anglicans. Up till then the Company had vigorously opposed missionary activity as liable to provoke both Hindus and Muslims. The Begum Sumru of Sardhana, a former mercenary commander and latterly an improbable convert to Catholicism, had just dismissed a clerical tutor in her employ on the grounds that he was baptising the locals. Instead, she enlisted the services of the military chaplain to the British garrison at nearby Meerut, who knew his remit stopped outside the cantonment.
But things were changing fast. Evangelical interests were already represented on the Company’s board of directors and had claimed at least one governor-general. The appointment of a bishop had been forced on the Company as one of the conditions for the 1813 renewal of its royal charter. By the time Bishop Heber began exploring his diocese, the idea that Britain’s mssion in India was to convert the heathen was gaining ground. Mary Martha Sherwood, the wife of an army captain, had just spent ten years filling her diaries with horrified accounts of sati and other ‘pagan’ practices. Worse, though, was British support for these practices. How dare the authorities, wrote Sherwood, “manifest their disregard of the religion of the Bible” by attending “heathen festivals” and paying “homage to idols”. No Christian government should countenance such “abominable” superstitions; rather, the great object should be “the deliverance of persons who are groaning under these horrors of darkness”.
Deliverance of a very different sort was urged by yet others. Writing in 1818, Thomas Munro, soon to be governor of Madras, damned both Christian zealotry and radical reform: “It is too much regulation that ruins everything. Englishmen suppose that no country can be saved without English institutions. The natives of this country have enough [institutions] of their own to answer every useful object of internal administration and, if we maintain and protect them, the country will in a very few months settle itself.”
Munro was one of the much-maligned orientalists. Along with Charles Metcalfe (the British Resident in Delhi), Mountstuart Elphinstone and John Malcolm (both future governors of Bombay), he spoke several languages, admired Indian culture and upheld the non-interventionist principles of an earlier generation. Progress was fine; the benefits of ‘science and civilisation’ should not be withheld. But nor should India be turned into another England. To the Company’s directors his advice was to work through local systems “and when in the fulness of time your subjects can frame and maintain a worthy Government for themselves, get out....”
What one might call ‘the 1818 debate’ would rumble on. By the 1830s, it looked to have been settled in favour of the reformers. Missionaries began popping up everywhere, practices like sati were outlawed, and English was preferred as the language of government and instruction. Then came 1857 and all that. The breakdown of the Pax Britannica revived a debate in which the founders of Congress would soon join. Eighteen-eighteen retained its relevance.
(John Keay’s books include histories of India and of the English East India Company. His Midnight’s Descendants: South Asia from Partition till the Present will be published by HarperCollins in January 2014)