The book starts its narrative when the British East India Company was founded around 1600 CE. It also talks about what India was like in this time, describing the later parts of Mughal rule. It then focuses on Bengal, talking about how the British established themselves there and slowly spread their influence. The battles of Plassey and Buxar are discussed in detail, as well as the social and political changes that followed them, such as the great famine.
Later the book discusses events in and around Delhi as well as Southern India, showing how the Company solidified its control of the entire country, and how the Mughal Emperor’s attempts at reestablishing himself were not successful. Towards the end, the book discusses the impeachment of the Company’s Governor-General and finishes up with the fate of Tipu Sultan and the Marathas, which represented the final challenges to Company rule in India.
If you’re into history and politics, you’ll greatly enjoy this book. It talks about the various empires, commanders and local rulers that buffeted each other for power in 17th, 18th, and 19th century India. It’s 400+ pages worth of names, dates, and places, so if you’re not paying attention or if you’re skipping around, you can get confused. Just something to keep in mind. Also, while the narrative is roughly chronological the chapters are topical, so it does jump forward and back a few times. The chapters can be read independently if you want.
The Relentless March of History
One thought I had after reading this book is how there’s this tension between two things:
First, how remarkable it was that a few 1000 or less British traders came to dominate a land of 100 million people that was home to a proud, powerful, wealthy empire.
Second, how inevitable the whole thing seems in hindsight. Dalrymple warns against reading history backwards, but looking at the context around the world: no one was able to escape colonialism except the ones who imitated European-style nationalism (e.g. Turkey and Japan) which was impossible to replicate in India due to its ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity. So how would India NOT fall under colonial rule one way or the other?
During the various battles such as Plassey, Buxar, and of course Tipu Sultan’s campaigns, there are moments where it seems like if one little thing had gone the other way, the course of history would have been different. If a commander here or there had made a slightly different decision… then the battle would have gone differently… and maybe the British would have been forced out of India or have their power greatly reduced.
I believe viewing history this way is incorrect. History marches forward, relentlessly, no matter what any individual says or does. Even if the British had been defeated at Plassey, or Buxar, or by Tipu Sultan, I think they would have taken over India anyway. They had a large supply of resources to draw on in England. Whenever they had setbacks, they were able to send more men and resources and secure their goals. So I think India’s fate was sealed from early on.
The Dip and Revival of the British Empire
Another interesting trend the book highlights is the dip in British power that came at the end of the 18th century. They were kicked out of America, Tipu Sultan notched a few victories against them in Southern India, and in Northern India the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam switched from being their puppet to being the Marathas’ puppet. Also, France started to establish close relations with various Indian powers such as Tipu Sultan, the Marathas, and the Nizam of Hyderabad. For a moment, it seemed like the British Empire which had been dominant for almost 200 years (counting since the destruction of the Spanish Armada and the subsequent establishment of Jamestown in America, late 16th/early 17th centuries) might be on its way out, perhaps to be eclipsed by the French.
And yet in the early 19th century, they managed to grow even *more* powerful in India (defeating the Marathas, their final real enemy), defend Canada against US invasions, and of course defeat Napoleon. Perhaps their perceived decline was a mirage caused by a series of coincidental events. Or perhaps their empire was really declining and about to collapse, and they managed to steady the ship and reassert themselves and be a dominant power for another 150 years. All in all, an interesting episode in history and one that has lessons for today.
War is Horrible and Destructive
Another lesson from this book is that you get a sense of how horrible and destructive war is, even when confined to a small area. The various fiefdoms and rulers and their armies, whenever they overpowered their enemies, would almost always commit atrocities from murder to looting to mass rape of the women perceived to have been on the other side, one of the ugliest and gut-wrenching things you can read about.
The perpetrators were mostly Indians as even the colonial armies were made up of locals; the white Europeans were officers and advisors. Though even if the British didn’t take part in most of the violent, ugly atrocities themselves they certainly tolerated and turned a blind eye to them. And the British did plunder and loot India, just in a more genteel fashion, robbing people through laws and edicts rather than through barging into your house with a gun and stealing all your money after your city’s rulers were defeated by their enemies.
Also one thing to note about these atrocities is that they usually didn’t discriminate between races or religions. Often it was Muslims doing it against other Muslims, as the horrific episode of what Ghulam Qadir did to Shah Alam and his family makes clear. Anyway, if you’re sensitive to accounts of murder, rape, plunder and the like, I’d warn against reading this book, because there’s a fair amount of it.
Further Areas of Inquiry
This book did a good job of balancing between military events and sociopolitical changes. Perhaps it could have focused slightly more on the sociopolitical aspects, but that’s just me being nitpicky.
One area that wasn’t covered much was the Islamic scholarly community’s response to the British presence and expansion of control. At the end it’s mentioned that Shah Abdul-Aziz (Shah Waliullah’s son) declared India to no longer be Dar ul-Islam and gave a fatwa for jihad, but that’s pretty much it. This era saw a lot of development of Islamic thought in the subcontinent, which continues to influence Muslims who are from that region till this day, so it would be interesting to know more about that. Plus it would allow us to put fatwas such as Shah Abdul-Aziz’s into their intellectual and historical context. This topic is covered a little bit in Dalrymple’s previous book The Last Mughal which focuses on the Uprising of 1857, but I wasn’t satisfied with his account, as he relied on tropes of Saudi-influenced “Wahhabism” to explain Shah Waliullah and his followers, which I believe misses the mark.
In addition to the Islamic scholarly aspect, the social and political changes of this period continue to cast their shadow on contemporary South Asia. There was some eyebrow-raising when Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, was photographed reading this book on an airplane. Was he reading it out of curiosity, or was he trying to learn some political lessons from the book? Who knows.
This book captures a glimpse of the beginning of the decline of the Muslim aristocracy in India (although it doesn’t frame it this way). Most Muslims in India even in the Mughal era were just regular people of course, but Muslims were disproportionately represented in the ruling class, and Islamicate high culture was respected by all of Indian society. As the British gained more and more influence, the wheel began to turn against this. A new Hindu land-owning aristocracy rose up due to collaboration and preferential treatment of the British. But this history is not one-dimensional, there were many Hindu bankers for example who were part of the Mughal world and were brought down by the British.
Today, we see that inside the modern nation-state of India, Muslims have been turned into second-class citizens. And within the Indian subcontinent, Muslim nation-states like Pakistan and Bangladesh have become politically weak and Indian hegemony rules the day. It’s a very different world from the one that existed a few hundred years ago.
Hopefully our current state is just temporary, In Sha Allah. If there’s anything to be learned from history, it’s how transient it is.