I just finished The Chaos of Empire, by Jon Wilson, which is all about the British Raj. Spoiler: he’s not in favor. In fact, his thesis is that the British never really knew what they were doing; they were constantly and pointlessly nervous and paranoid about their presence there, and alternated between unnecessary violence and out-of-touch bureaucracy.

In the early days, in the 1600s, the English simply didn’t understand how business or government was done in India– which was by face-to-face negotiation.  Whether kings and lords, or nobles and peasants, or authorities and merchants, arrangements were worked out by talk. (A show of force was not incorrect– but the Mughal way was to defeat an enemy, then make accommodations to make the defeated into an ally.) The English basically made outrageous demands (e.g. they wanted to trade tax-free and wanted the EIC to have a monopoly even over other English traders) and hated to negotiate.  They were constantly worried that they would be disrespected, harassed, or overwhelmed by the Indians, and the only way they could ever think of to get their way was by force.

Their first attempt, in the late 1600s, led to a righteous drubbing by the still-powerful Mughals. They did not learn anything from this.

(Now, Wilson may overstate the harmony of Mughal society. The Mughal founder, Babur, certainly found India as alien and unpleasant as any Englishman. But of course they put down roots and adapted, and the English didn’t bother to learn South Asian protocols.)

How did the British take over?  It’s not entirely technology, since the Indians were able to buy Western arms and even Western advisors; for that matter, the French at least were keen to oppose the British takeover. As with China, we can attribute much of the problem to poor luck. When the Mughals were strong, they could hold off Europeans, but the empire crumbled after the Afghan invasion of 1739. And the French never really committed to wars in India– probably because they sensed, correctly, that it wasn’t a profitable proposition. The EIC didn’t really want to take over Bengal, and British home opinion was not really in favor of empire; Plassey was more or less Robert Clive’s mad improvised scheme to replace the hated prospect of negotiation with the more appealing direct intervention to install a supposedly friendlier ruler.

In economics there’s the concept of a Winner’s Curse: in a competition to buy something, the winner is likely to be the one who overestimates the item’s value. The Indian empire was something of a winner’s curse. Bengal provided enormous revenues, enough for the armies that slowly conquered the rest of India… but also enormous expenditures, chiefly the army needed to hold all that territory. The company constantly had to be bailed out by London, and all through the 19th century the EIC and then imperial government was most often in the red. But of course it was unthinkable to simply give up and go home.

Ironically, the one time India was valuable was during the World Wars. It provided huge armies and great masses of war materiel, and this very fact made it completely impossible to maintain as an imperial colony without native involvement. To keep the troops and goods coming, Britain had to promise representative government (in WWI) and eventual independence (in WWII).

The British had no notion of developing education, civil society, industry, or self-government.  They did not seem to realize that Indians expected their rulers to respond to complaints and abuses and to provide relief in bad years.  Their idea of government was not much more than maintaining the army, a cumbersome bureaucracy, and a nice lifestyle for an upper crust of expats. Wilson shows that to the extent that civil society did develop, it was purposely done by Indians themselves away from British eyes.

At this point British readers are likely to be saying, “But we built railways, didn’t we?” But the railways were largely built to ferry troops around. They were too expensive for everyday commerce, they ran at a loss, and they did not develop Indian industry since the locomotives and rails were imported. Britain did not allow Indians to make their own steel until 1899.

As for “We taught them democracy, didn’t we?”– I’m sorry, Brits, but you get no prizes for ruling the country as an absolute monarchy for more than a century. The first elections were held in 1920; only 1/10 of the male population could vote, and for only limited domestic powers. This was three centuries after the first legislature in a British colony (Virginia, 1619).

I could go on and on, but then you could also just read the book. Although he is specifically countering old notions of Britain’s imperial glory or at least competence, it’s also a good overall look at Indian history from the mid-1600s till 1950, giving both the British and Indian sides of the story.

A sometimes endearing, sometime exasperating tendency of the British is their tolerance for constitutional muddle. The deal that gave them the administration of Bengal made them theoretical agents of the Mughal crown, and they maintained this fiction until 1857. And rather than conquering everybody, they left 500 “princely states” with various degrees of self-government. When the India-Pakistan border was drawn, hundreds of enclaves were created with tens of thousands of residents– supposedly a relic of ancient Mughal treaties.  All these eccentricities had a price in inefficiency and incompetence. In this light, Nehru’s insistence on central planning and central control start to make a lot more sense.

(This is of course research for my own book, the India Construction Kit. I’m a little over half done with it, I think.  More on that later…)