*Peace, Poverty and Betrayal*

The author is Roderick Matthews, and the subtitle is A New History of British India.  This book has been highly controversial for its supposed “whitewashing” of British rule in India, but so far I find it insightful and indeed revelatory.  It is to date my favorite book this year, most of all conceptual but also remarkably well-informed historically.  Here is one excerpt:

Ultimately, we should condemn [British] colonialism not because it was self-glorifying and arrogant, but because it was small-minded and fearful.

Colonial rule was undoubtedly heavily responsible for the fact that India remainder both poor and backward — but the high Rah hid a subtler hypocrisy, in the way that Indian landlords, for a muddle of humanitarian and political reasons, were denied the scope that their British counterparts had allowed themselves.  British landowners drove their tenants off the land and adopted new methods of husbandry to increase profitability, which allowed them to create the agricultural surplus that stimulated the industrial revolution, and provided Britain with a float of national wealth to pay for colonial adventures.  Rural India remained overmanned and underproductive.

This short charge sheet differs from the extensive accusations made by modern left-leaning historians, who recognize economic exploitation but choose instead to emphasize cultural issues, especially the bureaucratization of Indian society and the introduction of capitalist norms.  This is hardly fair, because the progressive middle classes in India would have done broadly the same things if they could.  Almost nothing of the imperial administrative agenda was undone in independent India.  However, it is true that the modernization process was rushed and defective.  It was too self-interested, and the guiding hands were not indigenous.  Something similar might have emerged, but with a more Indian face.  We cannot know.

I will be covering this book more, but so far strongly recommended.  It is no accident that the author, while an experienced Indian historian, is not an academic.


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