Monday, January 07, 2013

British Empire

A famous book about the founders of Apple and Microsoft was called Accidental Empires. The same description applies to the most valuable element of the British empire, India. According to Niall Ferguson, for 150 years, the British were in India merely to trade, but they fortified their trading posts, which have grown into some of the most important Indian cities: Mumbai, Madras, and Calcutta. During that time they existed by the grace of the Mughal emperor, and that of some of his deputies.

Two key elements changed that. One was the British triumph in a long struggle with France. The other was the ongoing disintegration of the Mughal empire, a Muslim dynasty that had conquered much of India some centuries before. The struggle with France had occasioned a build up of English force in India, and victory had chased out their European rival. Short-sighted Indian princes, struggling with each other for power were eager to accept help from the warlike foreigners. And thus they invited the viper to their breast.

Robert Clive was the man who figured out how to parlay this into a sub continent. Niall Ferguson notes that:

The question the British now had to ask themselves was: How should the government of India be carried out? The impulse of a man like Clive was simply to plunder – and plunder he did, though he later insisted that he had been ‘astonished at his own moderation’. A man so violent in his disposition that in the absence of foes he thought at once of self-destruction, Clive was the forerunner of Kipling’s dissolute empire-builders in his story ‘The Man Who Would Be King’:

We will ... go away to some other place where a man isn’t crowded and can come into his own ... in any place where they fight, a man who knows how to drill men can always be a King. We shall go to those parts and say to any King we find – ‘D’you want to vanquish your foes?’ and we will show him how to drill men; for that we know better than anything else. Then we will subvert that King and seize his Throne and establish a Dy-nasty [sic].

Ferguson, Niall (2008-03-17). Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (Kindle Locations 956-958). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.