In Defense of the British Empire


On Friday the 29th July 2010, I saw a BBC report of David Cameron’s tour of India. Several Indians, it seems, had demanded the return of the Koh-i-Noor Diamond. This has been property of the British Crown for the past century and a half, and now forms part of the Crown Jewels. To say that the inconvenience and humiliation of breaking up the Crown Jewels had not crossed the minds of those making the demand is to credit them with too little intelligence. The Diamond itself, we can have no doubt, was worth far less to these people than the joy of having humiliated their former masters. This was confirmed within the report by some relative of the famous Gandhi, who urged return of the Diamond as an act of “atonement” for our imperial past.

Mr. Cameron, I am glad to say, refused the demand. His refusal, however, was less firm than it should have been. He merely observed that return of the Diamond would set an unwelcome precedent. And so, having nothing more enjoyable to do with the five minutes of my time it took, I made my own response on the Libertarian Alliance Blog. It went thus:

Gross Indian Ingratitude

by Sean Gabb

So the Indian ruling class is asking for the Koh-i-Noor Diamond to be shipped off to them.

Some flatulent grandson of Gandhi is demanding the diamond as some kind of “atonement.”

Atonement for what? I ask.

I think the world would be a much better place if the wretched Gandhi had drunk a bad pint of his own urine c1910. But since he didn’t, the Indians might at least have the grace to thank us for having saved them from the barbarism in which we found them. But for us, they’d still be burning widows, and the country districts would still be swarming with Thugees. Thanks to us, they now have a space programme.

Yes, rather than asking for one diamond back, they should be grubbing about to see if they can find another one to send over. And, while doing that, they could put all those statues back up of Queen Victoria, and set up a few new ones of T.B. Macaulay.

Sadly, this posting has unaccountably vanished from the LA Blog, taking with it all the comments. But it provoked a firestorm of debate that has continued to burn on one of the supplemental postings that did survive. I drove several Indians into a frenzy, and got a stern ticking off from various self-appointed “libertarian purists.” In a private message to some of my friends, one of the Indians accused me of cowardice and dishonesty. Another of them, one Sudha Amit, has decided for the moment to call me an “imperialist racist pig” in the comment section of every other posting I make to the LA Blog. Since I presently have limited access to the Internet, I shall not see until tomorrow what the effect has been of calling her a “silly little woman.” If she has responded with better sense than I expect, I will confine myself to sneering at her bad English until she goes away.

I suppose I could have made my comment a little less bluntly. But I stand wholly by its substance.  I feel no shame whatever about my country’s imperial past. I am even rather proud of it. Indeed, I really do think that the inhabitants of those places lucky enough to have been conquered by England should display a little more gratitude than is currently the fashion. If they cannot do this, they should at least stop whining about it.

But, dear me -- here I go again! Never mind my poor Indian readers, I can almost hear the muscles tighten in the faces of my “libertarian purist” critics. And so, rather than go into the details of why I feel so pleased to have been born an Englishman, I will explain how, as a libertarian, I can possibly think well of an institution so essentially statist as the British Empire.

There are two points of view from which the Empire should be regarded -- that of the English and that of everyone else. I will begin with the English. For us -- I am not, by the way, discussing the colonies of white settlement -- the Empire was a mistake that ultimately destroyed us. This is particularly the case with India. There were Englishmen who gained from the conquest of India. But these were a small minority. They were shareholders in the East India Company, and politicians who took bribes from the Company, and various members of the ruling elite who found wider opportunities for employment as soldiers and administrators than would otherwise have existed in a liberal state. For the rest of us, India was a waste of our national effort. It was not a place to settle. It was less important as a trading and investment partner than the United States. Together with Burma and the East Indies, that control of India enabled us to conquer, the Raj brought us into disputes with Russia and Japan that led directly or indirectly to both great wars of the twentieth century.

I might add to this the corrupting effect that governing India had on the British ruling class. This was not so extreme as the effect that empire had on the Roman aristocracy. Even so, I think much of the paternalism one sees in British government after about 1870 was inspired by the example of despotic control over several hundred million Indians. Or I might add further unanticipated effects on England of our association with India and the other non-white colonies -- Iam pridem Syrus in Tiberim defluxit Orontes, etc. But this takes us away from the present argument.

Therefore, as a libertarian who looks at it from the English point of view, I can see nothing good in our conquest of India. It raised our taxes above what they would otherwise have been. It raised up wealthy special interest groups that were not particularly liberal. It involved us in otherwise unnecessary -- even unimaginable -- overseas entanglements. Had I been alive and writing in the 19th century, I would have been on the extreme radical wing of the Liberal Party, arguing for an immediate departure from India.

But this is the case only when I look at things from the English point of view. When I look at them from the Indian point of view, they appear wholly different. By liberal English standards, India was barbarous or, at best, semi-barbarous. It was a jolly enough place to live for those with money and power -- and I can understand why many of its early English rulers went native. But for everyone else -- that is, about 99.9 something of the people of India -- it was a hellish place. It was a place of rigid caste boundaries, of destructively rapacious landlords and tax collectors, of extreme and arbitrary injustice, of suttee and thuggee, of forced castration and forced prostitution, of outright slavery.

Until the death of Aurangzebe in 1707, India was at least reasonably united and reasonably at peace. After 1707, however, it fell into a growing chaos -- a chaos that impacted most on those at the bottom -- that was only terminated by the rise of the East India Company.

India never knew the really lunatic parasitism shown in Mel Gibson’s film Apocalypto. But it was, before the English conquest, similar in many respects to our own ancient world. These similarities, though, extended only to the evils of antiquity. India had no equivalent of those arts and sciences that redeem the ancients and that have made the study of their civilization so enduringly profitable. When, in the 1830s, he looked at what sort of popular education the East India Company should encourage, Macaulay saw no alternative to an entirely English curriculum. He was advised that the vernacular languages were, as they then stood, deficient as vehicles of instruction. He was willing to accept that the classical languages of Arabic and Sanscrit might be respectable in themselves, but had nothing but contempt for the “wisdom” their literatures offered to the Indian mind. This “wisdom” was made up of

medical doctrines which would disgrace an English farrier, astronomy which would move laughter in girls at an English boarding school, history abounding with kings thirty feet high and reigns thirty thousand years long, and geography made of seas of treacle and seas of butter.

It would be far better, he said, to let the Indians learn English and become as English in their thinking and outlook as their circumstances allowed. And, so far as circumstances allowed, it was English and English ways that, during the century that followed, were given to the Indians. They were given English science and administration. They were given a rational and human penal code based on English principles. They got due process of law and trial by jury and freedom of religion and the press. Slavery and sacrificial murder were put down.

That all this was given at gunpoint is no valid objection. Let us, for the sake of argument, accept that all states are evil. It does not follow that all states are equally evil. It may not be to the benefit of one nation to conquer another. But it will be to the benefit of one nation to be conquered by another when the state directing that conquest is more liberal. The English State was more liberal than any Indian alternative, and so the result of conquest was beneficial to all those classes of Indians outside the ruling elites. The main use of English power in India was to stop the Indians from being quite so beastly to each other as they would have been left to their own ways. The whining of some modern Indians about “colonialism” and “oppression” tries but cannot obscure this fact.

Nor is it valid to cry up the examples of real brutality by the English in India -- for example, the blowing apart of Sepoys after suppression of the Mutiny. Though it is never right, it is the nature of the strong to tyrannize over the weak. There is nothing unusual about English brutality. It is regrettable, but common to all powerful nations. What is notable about English rule of India is its settled benevolence. And I suspect this is what so outrages the modern Hindu nationalist. If we had behaved in India as the Belgians had in the Congo, he might actually think better of us today. Atrocities are more easily forgiven than benevolence from a position of overwhelming physical and moral superiority.

There is one point in my original blog posting that I might withdraw. This is my suggestion that the Indians should put back up all their statues of Queen Victoria. On the one hand, she was their lawfully proclaimed and accepted Empress. On the other, she was a foreigner. And, while they might have learned a few more English ways than they did, the Indians have had all the English lessons they really needed to become a fairly respectable people. They are no more obliged to set up statues of Queen Victoria than they are not to change the names of cities like Calcutta and Bombay and Madras to whatever they please in their own languages -- so long, that is, as they do not come scowling to me or mine to change our own usages.

As for Macaulay, he needs no statues in England or in India. His writings are the only memorial he requires.