The Iron Duke's less famous footprints

November 21, 1997

THE MAKING OF ARTHUR WELLESLEY. By Anthony S. Bennell. Sangam 235pp, Pounds 17.95. ISBN 0 86311 601 9.

During this the 50th anniversary of Indian independence, it seems appropriate to consider the role of individuals who have linked British and Indian history. Anthony S. Bennell's The Making of Arthur Wellesley concerns such a person. Wellesley was at one time known to most Britons as the First Duke of Wellington, victor of Waterloo (1815). As the years passed, society's collective memory of the Iron Duke faded.

Wellington's likeness, in a style reminiscent of Sir Thomas Lawrence's portrait of him, once graced that blue-tinged banknote commonly known as "a fiver". Will English school children, in the next century, join those tourists who ask: "Is he the one on Nelson's column in Trafalgar Square?" Despite a plethora of books on Wellesley's military and political achievements, there is a critical imbalance when it comes to examining his South Asian years. The late Jac Weller's Wellington in India, despite being published in 1972, remains a standard for tracing Wellesley's battlefield progress from a less than stellar performance at Seringapatam (1799) to his heroic victory at Assaye (1803). Bennell, in contrast, presents us with a study of Wellesley as soldier-diplomat during the second Anglo-Maratha war, 1803-1805. The book is not an easy read unless you are familiar with Indian history at the close of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century. Novices would be well advised to have several maps on hand and a copy of Hobson-Jobson would not be out of place.In defence of Bennell, he provides a major contribution to our understanding of the British diplomatic and political struggle in India during 1803-1805.

Bennell does not make any apologies for presenting his tome in the British imperial narrative tradition - nor should he. A recent informal survey of scholars working on South Asian military history, conducted at Cambridge, revealed that many thought there was a need to return to the writing of narrative history; although one might eventually hope for an equally well researched English language account of Maratha correspondence,a counter-part to this perspective, to balance British with Indian viewpoints. Bennell has done us a great favour in writing what some may see as an old-fashioned book. He refuses to spoonfeed us with politically correct pabulum about "uncertain times in a political vacuum caused by the incomplete attainment of an indigenous polity". Instead he tells us with painstaking, almost plodding detail about the British correspondence concerning negotiations with men like Baji Rao II, the Maratha Peshwa (prime minister). Bennell is at his best when describing the intricate relationship between Wellesley and political residents like Barry Close.

In the closing chapters Wellesley is portrayed as having pragmatically accepted the British inability to force a political solution upon what many perceived as a fratricidal Maratha confederacy.

Bennell has not only reminded us of the importance of narrative but shown us that it has run perilously close to market oblivion in this country. Is there not a tremendous irony in the fact that Bennell's study was published in India?

This book is about a man and period fundamental to the establishment of the British Raj. Yet to publish this traditional British narrative of imperial importance, the author had to find an Indian publisher. Hats off to Bennell for having the tenacity and hats off to Sangam for having the insight as well as the courage.

Randolf G. S. Cooper is a visiting scholar, Wolfson College, Cambridge.

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