Imperialist impositions

A Hundred Horizons - The Scandal of Empire
September 8, 2006

Attempts to take on contemporary targets undermine the scholarly value of two studies of Western political and economic power in Asia, Gordon Johnson says

Historians have always been rather good at recasting the past in ways that make it comprehensible to the present. These two books take Western imperialism in Asia from the mid-18th to the end of the 20th centuries as their point of departure to comment respectively on globalisation and contemporary American imperialism. They do so from a recognisably conventional liberal perspective and consequently exhibit a moral and political hostility to what both authors see as the unrighteous exercise of political and economic power by the West. Both books have a polemical edge, but their subject matter and approaches differ, and judged as works of scholarship they achieve only modest success.

Sugata Bose has previously written good empirical economic histories, and he is an editor of his kinsman Subhas Chandra Bose's political writings. In A Hundred Horizons , he ventures into new intellectual territory, where concept and theory are all-important. He seeks to add a historical dimension to notions of globalisation and is critical of other works on the subject, either because they ignore its ancestry or because they study it from too exclusive a Western angle. A fruitful line of inquiry, he suggests, might be to look at inter-regional networks that transcend the mere local or the territorial state, yet which have life independent of an all-encroaching global system.

His chosen example is a very good one: we know quite a lot about the movement of peoples, goods and cultures around and across the Indian Ocean over long periods of time. The sea proved no barrier to human enterprise but encouraged trade and cultural interaction, linking together the great civilisations of China, India and Islam in a complex inter-regional system.

This centuries-old state of affairs was, Bose argues, abruptly disrupted as the Europeans, above all the British, descended as capitalist predators on a cosmopolitan and benign commercial and cultural system and violently refashioned it to serve their own extractive economic purposes.

Part of Bose's book is, therefore, devoted to showing how, from the mid-19th century, the British reconfigured the Indian Ocean - not just economically but politically. From their base in India, British power and money destroyed old harmonies, exploited the rich resources of this quarter of the globe for British purposes and deployed them in other parts of the world on a scale previously unimaginable. British strategic thinking transformed older polities by both limiting and subordinating them to imperial interests - creating, along the way, some new local despotisms to act as intermediaries for the overlord. British capital made devastating inroads into Asian trade and finance, destroying or subjugating the region's financial elites and creating new dependencies of labour, often indentured or forced, where previously a freer market might have applied.

Europeans looked down on Asian religions, cultures and literatures and disparaged the character and aptitude of the peoples of the region. Although imperial arrogance provoked a counterblast in the form of colonial nationalisms, it is part of Bose's argument that these fit too closely the structures of the modern state created by imperialism to do other than continue in new guises damaging economic inequalities and social conflicts.

But while Bose is keen to resurrect the type of argument so brilliantly advanced in the 1940s by K. M. Panikkar in Asia and Western Dominance , enabling all current ills to be heaped on the capitalist imperialism of the West, he also knows that the argument will not stand unqualified: imperial power was shot through with contradictions and limitations. Consequently, while showing that significant changes occurred in the Indian Ocean networks, he admits that some of the older connections continued or adapted themselves to survive, and some positive new ones were formed.

Bose is also fashionably subaltern in his academic thinking, and an explicit part of his purpose is to tell his story from the point of view of the overlooked. Consequently, along with Lord Curzon and other elite figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, Bose gives us an account of pearl divers and common soldiers and Muslim pilgrims, showing how they too were a part of the Indian Ocean's ebb and flow. Most significantly, stress is laid on the way in which parochial concerns, even of the non-elite, connect with greater things, and local conflicts are mediated through action on the bigger inter-regional stage: Gandhi forges in South Africa an Indian nation; pilgrimage to Mecca creates an awareness of the community (and plight) of Islam. Experiences are deepened and better understood by travel and exchange: without loss of individual identity, contact with others makes possible a more beneficent connected whole. Bose concludes: "It was this task of creating hybrid and polyphonic languages of translation that the peoples of the Indian Ocean interregional arena had so successfully accomplished through the archaic and modern phases of globalisation. It remains the only hope for a new cosmopolitanism in a postcolonial setting."

So this is an ambitious book, but it is one that does not quite come off. Partly this is because Bose gets bogged down in opaque methodological and theoretical discussion that does nothing to communicate anything important to an intelligent reader. Then the rawness of his anti-imperialism distorts his historical judgment - that somehow British violence in India was qualitatively different from that of, say, the Mughals; that migrations in ancient times from India to SouthEast Asia are only a species of colonialism if viewed through the eyes of "Western Orientalism"; or that official (white men's) records are so tainted that they cannot reveal much about historical reality - they do not carry much conviction.

The book lacks the lucidity, coherence and narrative richness of, say, John Elliott's wonderfully perceptive Empires of the Atlantic World ; but Bose has done enough to show that the Indian Ocean, in itself as a meeting place for peoples, and as a passage to worlds beyond its shores, has a strong claim on historians as a focus of further study.

Nicholas Dirks is a cultural anthropologist by trade whose studies of precolonial south Indian kingship and understanding of Indian social organisation, if not unscathed by the passage of time, constitute major contributions to their discipline. The Scandal of Empire is for him, too, a new intellectual adventure as he turns to history pure and simple. But he is driven by a heartfelt political imperative. He abhors President George W. Bush's Government and its imperial foreign policy.

Dirks sees American military ventures, especially in the Middle East, as driven by ruthless capitalist forces - oil barons and corrupting politicians - from which flow an unwarranted desire to assert American culture over other peoples. Obnoxious in itself, it is made more so by the country's slide into an imperial role, justified on high moral principles. Dirks hates the hypocrisy of all this and sees such policies and their blundering application as contrary to America's great ideals and against her best interests in the longer term.

He is baffled by the way in which evident chicanery and greed, and breaches of common human decency in the implementation of policy, are excused by the American electorate on the grounds that a greater purpose is being served: freedom is being defended internationally and democracy promoted worldwide. A new high-minded 21st-century imperial ideology is being forged, and not just by officials justifying their shady actions. The popular media, the so-called neoconservatives and even some academics, such as the historian Niall Ferguson, have joined the cause. Dirks believes that a stand must be made against the view that imperialism can ever be justified.

How better to do this than to study the dark period of English expansion in the mid-18th century? Merchants, financiers and mercenary soldiers wrought havoc in Bengal, a distant, foreign but prosperous Indian state. They stole its wealth and subverted its administration. Not only that: they used their ill-gotten gains to undermine English values and to corrupt English government at home. Their activities provoked a storm of protest. Prominent individuals, such as Robert Clive and Warren Hastings (both governors of Bengal), were subjected to gruelling public inquiry about the origins of their wealth and the probity of their political activities in India. But irony of ironies, although many a dark deed was brought out into the open, the eventual outcome was that their actions were justified: it was India that was backward and corrupt; India that had to be reformed by the spread of English values and the application of clean, enlightened modern government. It was simply an added bonus that by strengthening the formal governmental ties between the countries, and reining in private excess, the British accumulated world power and used Bengal's wealth to fuel the development of their capitalist economy. The similarity of historical situations - now and then - Dirks asserts, is uncanny.

To make his case, Dirks draws on the vast documentation relating to Clive's dealings in Bengal and to Hastings's impeachment, as well as to a range of other materials, including his own quite striking investigation of European expansion in a south Indian polity. But his account is incomplete and unconvincing. Dirks's obsession with the importance of the exploitation of India to the development of Britain seems ignorant of all else that was moving the metropolitan economy and society.

When he wanted to castigate France's ancien regime , Voltaire wrote splendidly about China. It was not good Chinese history, but it made for a perceptive critique of decadent Europe. Dirks is no Voltaire, but his determination that America should learn from a bad British precedent might have made a wickedly good satirical essay for the New York Review of Books or its London equivalent. It makes a disappointing Harvard University Press monograph.

Alas for both authors, the sad fact is that in matters imperial the devil still commands the best tunes.

Gordon Johnson is president of Wolfson College, Cambridge.

A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire

Author - Sugata Bose
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 333
Price - £18.95
ISBN - 0 674 02157 6

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