Category Archives: Imperialism

For the Joy of Reading: The Silk Roads

The first thing that has to be said about this book is that it is a delight to read a history of the Eurasian landmass that does not treat a peripheral group of islands on the western extremity of that landmass as central to the history of the world, until that actually became the case, at the end of the sixteenth century, to be generous.   It is also interesting that it treats the western, European end of that landmass as peripheral, until Columbus and Vasco Da Gama opened the sea routes west and east at the end of the fifteenth century.   As an addendum, it is interesting that Columbus had not had a clue about what he had done, and that it was not until the murderous conquests of Cortez and Pizarro in the early sixteenth century that the balance of the world was altered, and the contribution of Columbus to the imperialist destiny of Europe became clear.

It is also interesting that the Silk Roads were not roads, or at least not in the modern sense.   They were trade routes, and the goods that were transported across them came on the backs of camels, donkeys and mules, and sometimes by sea.   The great centres of civilisation were China and India, and they exported their surpluses along routes around the high Pamirs and the Taklamakan desert, through the steppes to Persia, to the civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt and then on to Rome, and its successors.

The steppes were also important because it was here that the beasts of burden were bred.   Two-humped camels are called Bactrian because they were bred in the province to the west of modern Afghanistan, and they were vital because they had the ability to carry vast amounts of water in their two humps.   The steppes were also home to vast horse herds, bred by nomad tribesmen and it was on horseback that the nomads swept time and time again to conquer – Huns and Avars and Turks and Mongols.   The names of their leaders are legendary – Attila, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane.   Genghis Khan conquered the biggest land empire that the world has ever known.   The Silk Roads were the conduit for his armies.

But they were more than that: they were conduits for ideas and technologies.   The Abrahamic religions spread along the Silk Roads.   Silk manufacture and papermaking came along the Silk Roads from China.   Peter Frankopan sets out the central role of the Silk Roads as the main arteries of trade and civilisation from the time of Cyrus the Great and the Persian Empire of the Achaemenids to the present day.   Peter Frankopan sets out the case that the Silk Roads are the arteries leading to the heart of the world, and that heart is not Europe.   It is a necessary lesson.

This is a complex tale, well-told by Peter Frankopan.   It is very ambitious.   It covers a timespan of 2,500 years in 521 pages.   There are times when I wished for a bit more detail.   For instance, why did the Mongol expansion stop when Ogodei Khan died unexpectedly in 1241.   The answer, of course, is that it didn’t.   It was merely that Subadei Khan withdrew from the Danube, with his armies, to take part in the election of the new Great Khan.   Kubilai then moved into China, and Khulugu moved south into Persia and destroyed Baghdad.   It was Qutuz, the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt who stopped the Mongol advance westward at the Battle of Ayn Jalud, but this was only decisive because Khulugu was engaged, more profitably, elsewhere and did not challenge the Mamluk victory.   This, however, is a small criticism of what must have been editorial decisions to keep the story moving along without making it unintelligible.

No-one could accuse this book of being unintelligible.   The author guides you through the story with great skill, and keeps your attention from Alexander the Great to Mossadeq and Ayatollah Khomeini.   If you want to understand the world in which we live, this is a book that you should read.


For the Joy of Reading: Inglorious Empire

The first thing to say is that this is not a history of the British Raj.   It is a book that arose from a debate at the Oxford Union.   It is a deconstruction of the arguments out forward that the British Empire was, in some way, good for the countries that were conquered.   That means that it is controversial, but it does not make it wrong.   It is obviously nonsense to argue that people are prepared for independence by robbing them of their independence, and when the arguments for the benefits of British rule are that stupid, it really is not necessary to refute them.

So let us look at the arguments, and see if we can test them.   This is what Tharoor sets out to do, and it is very instructive that the arguments advanced for the benefits of British colonialism do not generally hold up.

When Queen Elizabeth I signed the royal charter for the English East India Company (Scotland being a separate country at the time) it was not that she envisaged the creation of an Empire.   This would have been ridiculous.   Her contemporary, ruling most of the Indian sub-continent, was the Mughal Emperor, Akbar.   He ruled one of the most populous and prosperous states in the world at that time.   The Mughal Empire was one of the great intellectual centres, and the Mughal army was formidable.   Elizabethan England, along with their Dutch allies, were involved in a long and debilitating war with the Spain of Philip III.   He, as King of Portugal, controlled the East Indies spice trade.   The Dutch East India Company had been making inroads into this monopoly, and Elizabeth wanted to secure her share of the profit at no cost to herself.   So she issued a royal charter and sent an ambassador to Akbar the Great.

Throughout the seventeenth century there was very little change.   The British, under Charles II, secured Bombay as the dowry for his Portuguese wife, and opened some trading posts in the South Indian states, independent of the Mughal Empire.   But very little changed until the enfeeblement of that Empire was demonstrated by the invasion of the Persian army under Nadir Shah, the storming of Delhi and the seizure of Mughal treasures, including the Koh-i-noor diamond and the Peacock Throne.   Meanwhile, the French had arrived in Pondicherry and came into conflict with the British in South India, based at Madras (now Chennai).   The decisive moment came when the British East India Company and the French were allowed to recruit armies in the Indian sub-continent.

This is one of the areas where I would argue with Tharoor.    If the British had not colonised India it is likely that the French would have done so, and that would have altered the course of European history.   The riches of India would have poured into Versailles, not London.   It is probable that the French monarchy would not have been forced, because of bankruptcy, to reconvene the States-General and the French Revolution would not have happened.   The prospect of an India not subject to colonisation does not seem likely to me.   That however is a minor quibble because history deals with what happened, not the various possibilities that did not happen.

There are a number of factors that changed British attitudes to India.   Clive’s victory at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 gave the East India Company the control of Bengal.   With that came a rapacity that drained India of resources, in which Clive himself led the way.   The sudden access to wealth of the employees of the East India Company made them good marriage material, and so young women arrived by the boatload, in what became known as the “fishing fleet”, in search of suitable husbands.   This changed attitudes considerably.   Young men had, prior to this, formed liaisons and even married Indian women.   This stopped.

But how the Raj was created is not Tharoor’s subject.    His subject is how it behaved.   The argument of the apologists is that it gave India good government, democracy, peace and security, transportation, an international language and cricket.   Tharoor demolishes this.   It is no accident that the term that the British used for themselves in India, the “Sahib Log” was translated as “master race”.   Indians were denied access to the higher echelons of government and when they were employed, they were paid at a vastly inferior rate to the British counterparts.   As for democracy, this depends on how you define it but for most of the period that the British ruled India, the electorate in Britain was limited to men of a certain income.   The British also ensured that Indian industry was impoverished by exporting raw materials (jute, cotton etc.) from India to places like Manchester and Dundee, converting them into sacking, clothes and other goods, and then selling them back to India at vastly inflated prices.   This was why the railways were built, not to facilitate the transport of ordinary people.   Where the transport of people was concerned it was in moving people, mainly women, from the heat of Calcutta (now Kolkata) to the cool of Simla in the summer months.   This is the society described by Rudyard Kipling in his “Plain Tales from the Hills”.   The British also exacerbated through their policy of “divide and rule” the religious differences between Sikhs, Hindus and Moslems.   This was to have disastrous consequences during the Partition of 1947, because it made partition a certainty and left millions stranded on the wrong sides of the border in both the Punjab and Bengal.

As for giving India an international common language, this was because the colonial masters could not be bothered to learn the already existing languages of government in India.   They also wanted to impress upon Indians joining the governing classes the “superiority” of British culture.   [Tharoor does not say this, but when the English settled in what became England in the fifth and sixth centuries (Common Era), they called the natives Welsh, which means foreigners, in the land where they had lived for thousands of years.]   Their attitude to Indic languages was one of arrogance, dismissing the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Vedas as insignificant and primitive.

This argument is developed over the 249 pages of the book, and is backed up with extensive footnotes.   The basic attitude of the Raj can be summed up quite easily: We are white, and they are not.

This is not a book that will go down well with Brexiteers, with those nostalgic for the glories of Empire, with Daily Mail readers and others of that ilk.   If, however, you do not fit those categories, it is a book that will give you many a moment to pause and think.