British in India: Imperialism or Trusteeship?

British in India: Imperialism or Trusteeship?

British in India: Imperialism or Trusteeship?

British in India: Imperialism or Trusteeship?


In the shaping of the modern world, few historical processes have had greater significance than the impact of European imperialism on Asia and Africa, and the reaction and response which came in its train. The most spectacular single example of this process may be seen in the history of Britain's Indian Empire. Writing in 1942, an official British spokesman declared:

No romance can compare with the story of the handful of Englishmen . . . who, beginning as mere traders and merchant settlers, have in barely two centuries built up the majestic structure of an Imperial system under which peace, order and good government are secured for three hundred and fifty millions of human beings inhabiting what is in essence a continent of its own.

One might debate this characterization of the results of British rule, but who can deny that it captures something of the inherent drama of the situation? There is no parallel in history to this story of imperial control maintained for so long, and over such a large and populous area, by a small and distant nation. To Indian nationalists, however, there was another dimension to British rule. Jawaharlal Nehru, while serving his ninth term of imprisonment in a British jail in India, wrote in 1944 that

those parts of India which have been longest under British rule are the poorest today. . . . Nearly all our major problems today have grown up during British rule and as a direct result of British policy: the princes; the minority problem; various vested interests, foreign and Indian; the lack of industry and the neglect of agriculture; the extreme backwardness in the social services; and, above all, the tragic poverty of the people.

If we are to understand the significance of European expansion, it is necessary to come to some evaluation of the British impact on India. The two centuries of British rule brought changes of basic importance in Indian life. This much is beyond dispute. But the student who seeks to evaluate these changes soon finds that historians have achieved no consensus in their judgments of the character and consequences of the British raj. In the broadest sense, the issues in dispute might be summed up by the question: Was British rule in India destructive or creative? Was its essence the exploitation and the impoverishment of the country for the benefit of alien rulers? Or, in contrast, did British rule serve to infuse a new dynamism into a hitherto stagnant and backward society, and to lay the essential groundwork for India's ultimate modernization? Finally, is it possible that British rule was both destructive and creative at the same time?

It is conventional to date the beginning of British rule from the Battle of Plassey in 1757, which gave effective control of the key Indian province of Bengal to the agents of the English East India Company. Behind this lay a century and a half of increasing involvement by "John Company" in Indian affairs. The Mughal Empire had been at its peak of effectiveness in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, but after the death of the emperor Aurungzeb in 1707 it had begun to disintegrate. For some time . . .

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