Colonial expectations that ended in revolt and failure

The Making and Unmaking of Empires

November 2, 2006

In the past two decades India and the US have grown closer culturally, politically, economically and socially than ever before. Most historians of India and the US begin the story of their connection in 1784 after the revolutionary war when trade began. However, P. J. Marshall, the most distinguished historian of the British Empire in the 18th and early 19th centuries, has looked at developments in the US and India in the context of changes in the British Empire from about 1750 to the early 1780s. Although he concentrates his attention on the US-to-be and the future British India, he also includes the Caribbean, Ireland and Canada in his scope, making this account highly informative about the Empire as a whole in the 18th century.

The work has the usual hallmarks of his fine scholarship over more than four decades: selection of an important theme and interesting questions, thorough archival research, consultation with a host of published works, clear writing, detailed accounts of the developing Empire during these years and thoughtful conclusions.

There are three kinds of chapters here: those about the Empire from the imperial centre, those on the Atlantic and North America and those on India. Although there are some invigorating generalisations about the British and their Empire to be found, particularly in the chapters looking from the centre outwards, the chapters on the US and India are not for the novice: they are scrupulously nuanced and detailed and based on extraordinary consultation of secondary sources and many primary sources from archives scattered across several continents. The main theme may be grasped from this summary in his concluding chapter: "This process of integration (of India into the Empire by the 1780s) did not mark the launching of a second empire in compensation for the one that had been lost in North America, but... it moved in tandem with attempts to integrate the 13 colonies more firmly into the Empire too. Successive British governments had applied much the same pressures to the 13 colonies and to the East India Company. The outcome had, however, been very different."

The author makes a good case that there was one ongoing Empire, gaining and losing territories as it went, and the goal of the centre was to control more firmly widely divergent areas with heterogeneous populations. However, Marshall points to few direct connections between the US and India, save a few American comments on British efforts to enslave them in the same way that they were enslaving India, and East India Company tea being unceremoniously dumped into Boston Harbor.

Whereas the Americans of the mid to late-18th century eventually saw themselves as freeborn Englishmen not to be ruled by representatives in a parliament they had not elected, it took a long and difficult course of integration, education, rising national consciousness and nationalist struggle for Indians to come to parallel views about themselves. Although Marshall makes points about stirrings of patriotic feelings in Indians of the 18th century and resistance to the imposition of British rule, for which there surely is some evidence, this is not the same as the relatively unified national consciousness and powerful nationalist organisation that Americans created in the 1770s and Indians from the 1920s onwards.

The two areas were at different stages in their political development. So, of course, American elites in the 1770s were less willing to submit to dictation from Britain than Indian elites who were not sure what was coming. The author explicitly states that his focus is on elites and how they "negotiated" the making and unmaking of empires. This is not history-from-below or subaltern history. However, he does try to tap public opinion of the 18th century by checking the press and a variety of sources.

As Marshall works at dismissing generalisations about the old Empire (American colonies) being replaced by the second Empire, I cannot understand why he does not see that the end of the empire in the American colonies by the treaty of 1783 and the exit from India in 1947 were not turning points of significance in the history of the British Empire. He resolutely states the opposite.

I beg to differ. After the lessons of the American revolt, in the long run, the British were more careful in how they handled their white settler colonies, granting significant concessions to Canadians in the 1830s and later to other settler colonies. And surely the independence of India in 1947 opened the floodgates of freedom for Burma, Malaysia, the Gold Coast and most of the British colonies around the world.

One of the most positive features of Marshall's scholarship on Empire is that he has made a largely successful effort in this book, and in many others, to incorporate the viewpoints of the subjects in the colonies as well as the makers of Empire at home. In discussing efforts at conciliating the American colonists, Marshall writes: "Reform proposals, for all their expression of generous sentiments about the benefits of common Britishness, were ultimately intended to maintain colonial subordination." Marshall's long-time hero (with reservations) Edmund Burke, however much he urged conciliation, could not bridge the superordination-subordination divide.

The colonists, in some small measure, would have to submit to king and parliament. This was no longer acceptable even to Benjamin Franklin, friend of Great Britain and long-time resident in London, who tried for conciliation from the other side. So, as Marshall notes, the British, after the loss of the American colonies, forged ahead with building an empire of very diverse peoples scattered around the globe, always understanding that empire meant some measure of hierarchy and control from the centre, or it was not empire at all. What the British also learnt from their imperial adventures was the difficulty of conquering and ruling at a distance, especially over such diverse peoples. In India, company men such as Robert Clive and Warren Hastings and later others helped to expand and build a Raj beyond any British expectations of the mid-18th century. It was always difficult to control the man in the field. And then there were always unexpected consequences of these enterprises. Have the would-be imperialists of the early 21st century learnt these lessons even now?

Leonard A. Gordon is emeritus professor of history at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, who is working on a historical study of the US and India.

The Making and Unmaking of Empires: Britain, India, and America c. 1750-1783

Author - P. J. Marshall
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 398
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 19 9895 4

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