Illusions and Empire: Many People Believe That Britain's Empire Provided a Civilizing Force throughout Its Domain, but It Left a Bloody Legacy Both Abroad and at Home

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On a bitterly cold day in mid-January, 1842, British soldiers manning the garrison at Jalalabad on the Afghan frontier saw a strange sight. Out of the snowy wasteland rode a single man, badly wounded, on a dying horse. His name, he told the soldiers, was William Brydon. He was a surgeon with the British East India Company and had studied medicine at Edinburgh University. He showed the soldiers a terrible wound on his head, where a sword had removed part of his skull. He had survived only because a magazine he had stuffed under his hat for extra warmth had cushioned the blow. Dr. Brydon was the only survivor of a 4,500-man British army, commanded by General William Elphinstone, to escape from the occupation of Kabul. The rest lay massacred in the snowy Afghan passes or, in a few cases, in Afghan prisons. General Elphinstone himself died a few months later in captivity.


Perhaps no Englishman in the 19th century had better firsthand experience with the costs of empire than William Brydon. Fifteen years after the inglorious conclusion of the First Anglo-Afghan War, Dr. Brydon found himself trapped in the British Residency at Lucknow in north central India during the infamous six-month siege that was the most celebrated event of the 1857 Mutiny, a bloody uprising against British authorities. Dr. Brydon sustained a serious leg injury during the siege but, unlike hundreds of his fellow countrymen, survived.

It is impossible to say whether Dr. Brydon or others of the countless thousands of British soldiers, bureaucrats, judges, engineers, and others who sustained the British Empire in India--known informally as the Raj--for almost 200 years were able to perceive the design for which so many lives and fortunes, Indian and British, were squandered. Certainly the world-engirding British Empire, of which the Raj was the crown jewel, was widely regarded--by observers at a safe distance--as the greatest civilizing force the world had ever seen. Yet this alleged boon to humanity, which began as an exercise in unbridled mercantilism, gradually transformed into a global crusade on behalf of Anglo-Saxon civilization, before collapsing ignominiously in the mid-20th century, leaving its mistress, Great Britain herself, exhausted and virtually bankrupt. Nowhere was this tragic trajectory plainer than in the long history of British involvement with South Asia--today the nations of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Burma, as well as Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, under a separate British administration from the Raj itself, and Nepal and Bhutan, which were never fully brought into subjection. In considering briefly the history of this region, we would do well to enquire whether the United States, the self-anointed heirs of the British Empire, are not following a path similar to the one that the British once followed.

Gaining Ground in India

The peoples of the Indian subcontinent were certainly no strangers to imperial domination at the time the British East India Company first set up shop on the southwest coast of India in the early 1600s. The dominant power in South Asia at the time, as it had been for generations, was the Islamic Mughal Empire, administered by Turkic peoples out of central Asia. But by the mid-1700s, the Mughal Empire was crumbling, and the opportunistic British seized the moment.

The Battle of Plassey in 1757 is usually reckoned as the starting point for the British Empire in India. Fought in the steamy jungles of Bengal not far from modern-day Calcutta, Plassey was a total victory for the British forces under Robert Clive, and left the British in charge of much of the territory of Bengal. At first the East India Company, not the British government per se, remained in charge of British India to maintain a fiction of separateness from the British Crown. The first Governor-General of India, Warren Hastings, was appointed in 1773. Upon his resignation in 1784, he returned to England and was impeached for corruption at the urging of Edmund Burke--the same eloquent statesman who openly sympathized with the American revolutionaries and later wrote a damning critique of the French Revolution. …