The Chaos of Empire

The British Raj and the Conquest of India


By Jon Wilson

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The popular image of the British Raj-an era of efficient but officious governors, sycophantic local functionaries, doting amahs, blisteringly hot days and torrid nights-chronicled by Forster and Kipling is a glamorous, nostalgic, but entirely fictitious. In this dramatic revisionist history, Jon Wilson upends the carefully sanitized image of unity, order, and success to reveal an empire rooted far more in violence than in virtue, far more in chaos than in control.

Through the lives of administrators, soldiers, and subjects-both British and Indian-The Chaos of Empire traces Britain’s imperial rule from the East India Company’s first transactions in the 1600s to Indian Independence in 1947. The Raj was the most public demonstration of a state’s ability to project power far from home, and its perceived success was used to justify interventions around the world in the years that followed. But the Raj’s institutions-from law courts to railway lines-were designed to protect British power without benefiting the people they ruled. This self-serving and careless governance resulted in an impoverished people and a stifled society, not a glorious Indian empire.

Jon Wilson’s new portrait of a much-mythologized era finally and convincingly proves that the story of benign British triumph was a carefully concocted fiction, here thoroughly and totally debunked.




The Indian subcontinent is the fastest moving place on earth, geologically speaking. It was formed when a massive chunk of the great southern continent of Gondwana sheared off 100 million years ago, sped through the Indian Ocean at the lightning speed of twenty centimetres per year and then slammed into the Eurasian landmass. The violence of the split created a 1000-metre-high escarpment, and caused the subcontinent to tilt downhill from west to east. Those cliffs are now the Western Ghats, a mountain range less than a hundred miles from India’s west coast. The subcontinent’s tilt causes the flow of water from west to east across nearly all of South Asia’s landmass. To the north, the shock of collision is still creating the world’s highest mountain range, the Himalayas, most of whose meltwaters drain out through the massive Ganges river delta in the east.

India’s violent geological origins shaped the movement of people to and in the subcontinent. They forged a landmass divided into different ecological zones, each repelling or attracting men and women searching for a better livelihood or striving for power. At the far north of the subcontinent the Himalayas and Hindu Kush mountain ranges form a 3000-kilometre border which blocks the route to China and Central Asia, apart, that is, from a few valleys, the Khyber Pass being the most famous. For thousands of years their grassy foothills fed cattle and horses which hill-dwellers took back and forth to India’s plains. Often, they joined armies battling for control of the central north of the subcontinent: Punjab, Rajasthan, the Delhi plain and then the plain which stretches east around the Ganges. These flat, wheat-growing lands formed the heartland of the empires that governed much of India in historic times.1

Further south, the Deccan plateau rises up and spreads out in a raised triangle sloping west to east, reaching a kilometre at its highest point, and extending to India’s far south. The plateau is dotted with rocky protuberances which provide the foundations for hundreds of forts, surveying, defending and threatening the surrounding countryside. It has always been hard to persuade the Deccan’s black, hard soil to produce edible crops, but the land is good for growing cotton. Until the slave plantations of the American South expanded cultivation in the last years of the eighteenth century, the Deccan was the world’s greatest source of cotton fibre. But cotton has never been enough to sustain an entire community’s livelihood. Unable to feed conquering armies, the Deccan has been the graveyard of empires. In the late nineteenth century it was scene of the British regime’s worst ever famines.2

For millennia from the Deccan plateau people have migrated to wetter lands to the west and the east. Until relatively recently, they largely failed to dominate the thin coastal strip between the subcontinent’s great western escarpment and the Arabian Sea. This lush, undulating stretch of land extends from Bombay to Kerala. It is cut through with rivers which carry water from the monsoon rains quickly to the sea. The difficulty of moving on land through this wet, hilly, undulating landscape meant settlements were less prone to the encroachment of raiding armies or tax collectors from the interior. The climate is good for growing spices, cinnamon, nutmeg and, above all, pepper. Before good roads and railways cut permanent lines up though the hills, India’s west coast was often better connected to the Middle East or Africa than the Indian interior; it was ‘long-guarded by tight-fisted foreigners’, as one seventeenth-century chronicler put it. This is where Christianity and Islam first took root. It is also where European fleets initially landed.3

Land to the east was easier to access and conquer. Here an arc of territory sweeps down from the far east of Bengal to the south of the Indian landmass merging with the sea in a series of flat, convoluted, ever-shifting river deltas. The Himalayas’ waters drain through the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers into the Bengal delta, merging and splitting into the distributary channels that now dominate the landscape of Bangladesh, the Jamuna and Padma. Further south, water flows in narrow streams through the Deccan plain and discharges into the sea through a succession of river deltas: the Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, Penna, Cauvery. India’s eastern coast and rivers are rich, well-watered rice-growing alluvial land where a family can live with relatively little labour. Household industries grew quickly, with large numbers of people making a living spinning and weaving cotton and silk, for example. This is a region whose towns and villages are quickly reached on horseback, on foot, or by boat. Until the middle of the nineteenth century it attracted migrants and raiders from across the subcontinent. It was here that the English fought their first battles and first conquered land.4

These geographical differences shaped the politics of India, helping mould the variety of units in which India’s population ruled themselves for centuries. Along India’s south-west coastline, the difficulty of transportation created small settlements ruled by warrior-peasants proud of their refusal to submit to outside power, called Nairs in the far south, Bunts further north. Decisions were made in meetings premised on the capacity of each member to have their say. In the Deccan and India’s northern plain, the idea of military brotherhood was important, too, but greater mobility meant it was easier for villagers to be integrated into larger political units. In Gujarat in coastal western India the village leader or Patidar, often also given the surname Patel, was supposed both to communicate between villagers and regional officials or kings. In Maharashtra, to the south and east, the right of individuals to cultivate particular plots of land was supposed to be agreed in assemblies of landholders, presided over by the local deshmukhs (literally heads of the land).

In India’s deltaic east, the ease with which rice could be cultivated and distributed created larger political formations. From Bengal to Tamil-speaking country in the south, eastern India was dominated by little kingdoms that stretched for tens or hundreds of miles, ruled by leaders with titles like raja, reddy, palaiyakar or zamindar, the latter word meaning ‘landholder’ in Persian, the language of India’s early modern ruling class. The politics of these places was no less dynamic or argumentative than the west, but power was shaped more through negotiation between kings and subjects than discussion among supposed equals. The prosperity of eastern India’s rice-growing land meant, if conditions became difficult, the best option was often to move elsewhere rather than fight.

Friendship and union

In 1600, when the English East India Company started planning its first voyages, the Indian subcontinent was a society of little societies. Politics was driven by the effort of men and sometimes women to build power by creating a following. Authority was built in alliances between groups of people that had their own organization and identity. In their doomed effort to tell a single story about India, later British administrators gave the groups that formed from this process fixed labels. Some argued that it was caste that was crucial, but were not sure whether caste was defined by occupation or race. Others suggested it was the village that characterized the essence of Indian group life. In reality, India’s little societies took thousands of different forms, varying according to political and particularly geographical conditions. Nicholas Dirks, a critic of European representations of Asia, puts it well: in India before the British the ‘units of social identity were multiple’, their trajectories ‘part of a complex, conjunctural, constantly changing political world’.5

India had long been shaped by a continual process of overland circular migration. Beginning in the second millennium BCE people moved back and forth, as groups of herders drove their cattle down onto the plains, perhaps because of a succession of hard winters, bringing their horses, cattle, language and religion, but then returning to their original societies. The same process continued with less or more violence over the next three millennia. From the thirteenth century many of these warrior-adventurers were Muslims who travelled to India as part of the horse trade, selling steeds for use in transportation and battle. Some settled, becoming local lords or creating regimes that grew to rule large areas of Indian territory. They did so partly through the recruitment and management of soldiers and partly through their capacity to persuade enough of India’s myriad little societies that it was in their interests to submit to their authority. They did not conquer as strangers, but imposed power over societies they had long had dealings with and knew well.

By 1600, the Mughal dynasty had ruled the northern Indian plain for eighty years and was extending its sway beyond. The empire was founded in the 1520s by descendants of Genghiz Khan and his Turko-Mongol successor Timur (Tamerlane to contemporary Europeans). The Mughal dynasty first ruled an area in Uzbekistan that had long been an important part of the silk route. A series of local conflicts forced them to look to territories beyond their homeland. Gaining control of Kabul the Mughals then pushed on to the more fertile lands beyond the Khyber Pass in the late 1520s, gaining supporters as they went. The first Mughal armies were relatively small, only 12,000 fighting at the Battle of Panipat in 1526, for example. They won initially by using cannon and matchlock rifles against Afghan and Rajput rulers who up to that point relied on mounted swordsmen.

The Mughals had adopted the language and political and religious culture of the Middle East’s most stable and sophisticated empire, Persia. Their firepower came through Persia, too. But Central Asia’s loose, nomadic style of government influenced the empire until the end: ‘Mughal’ is just the Persian word for Mongol. Just as their Central Asian ancestors sojourned in India for millennia, the empire’s first two rulers, Babur and Humayun, journeyed back and forth along the diagonal route that cuts down from Central Asia through the Himalayas to the Ganges plain. Akbar (1556–1605), the emperor whose reign coincides almost exactly with that of Queen Elizabeth I of England (1558–1603), created a more stable structure. Movement was important to the way the Mughals did politics until the eighteenth century, and it was shaped by India’s geography. From Akbar to Alamgir (who ruled between 1659 and 1707, and is also known by his birth-name Aurangzeb), the emperors resided in their capital city only four-tenths of the time, and the capital itself kept moving, between Delhi, Agra, Lahore and Fatehpur Sikri. When they were in the field, emperors moved to and fro, first travelling to conquer the lush rich lands of the east, then, under Alamgir, invading the dry Deccan to the south. Such constant movement was necessary so that people could see the splendour of authority close up. Local rulers needed to negotiate their submission to imperial power in person.

Mughal conquests were not about violence alone. Territories came under Mughal rule as local leaders were coaxed into shifting their allegiance to the new regime. Force was needed to demonstrate the potency of Mughal authority, but it was followed by affection. ‘[A]s soon as fear and aversion had worn away,’ one Mughal noble said, describing the process during the eighteenth century, ‘we see that dissimilarity and alienation have terminated in friendship and union, and that the two nations have come to coalesce together into one whole, like milk and sugar that have received a simmering.’ For union to be possible, new subjects needed proof that the Mughals could protect and enhance people’s livelihoods. That meant the regime was able to defend itself and its subjects from external threats, but also to support local agriculture and industry sufficiently to sustain decent living standards.6

Living from generation to generation on Indian soil, the Mughal regime nonetheless created a distinct Persian-speaking administrative cadre. The work of this highly trained class of men was governed by practices which defined their existence as a separate, skilled elite class: hunting, falconry, particular forms of music and Persian literature. Their formal status was defined by an empire-wide system of numerical ranking. The emperor moved senior Mughal officers from region to region to ensure they did not get too close to local society. But the Mughal elite’s intention was not to impose the will of a centralized state through every part of Indian society.

Mughal officers defined their task as to keep an ordered balance between the different forces which constituted Indian society. Long before the British emphasized the diversity of India’s castes, regions and religions, Mughal political leaders recognized India as a society of societies, cut through with social, cultural and religious differences; there could be no such thing as Mughal nationalism. The Mughal political order was based first on submission to the personal authority of the emperor, then on fostering harmony between different groups rather than imposing homogeneity or enforcing compliance. Mughal governors left decision-making to local leaders they trusted. Disputes between merchants were adjudicated by local merchant corporations; villagers and townsfolk were left to govern their own societies. Even under Emperor Alamgir, often seen as an Islamic zealot, the Mughal regime recognized India’s different religious practices and institutions, making little effort to convert non-Muslims or force them to accord with Islamic law. When Hindu temples were destroyed it was because they belonged to rulers who refused to submit to the emperor’s authority, not because they symbolized religious difference. The Mughal elite thought their power was best sustained if different groups retained their distinct characteristics, and it tried to maintain a harmonious balance between each.7

The scope for local autonomy meant politics in Mughal India was a talkative, argumentative, often rebellious enterprise. There were millions of public spaces in villages, towns and cities where the acts and beliefs of the powerful could be debated and challenged. India before British rule was not a particularly deferential society. It was not unusual for the preacher in a mosque to be interrupted in the middle of a sermon and be challenged to a debate, nor for disciples to correct their masters, or subjects to challenge sovereigns in their courts. Ordinary people were continually part of public debate in the street, in bazaars and at fairs. Early eighteenth-century Delhi had street corners set aside for public speeches. An English traveller described sweet shops (‘the coffee house of India!’) as places ‘where all subjects except that of the ladies, are treated with freedom’, where conversation occurred without the ‘refinement of language, as among politicians of an European capital’, yet with ‘equal fervour and strength of voice’. The scope for ordinary people to criticize meant resistance was common, and had to be heeded by those in power. In Ahmedabad, capital of the province of Gujarat, throughout the late 1600s officers were routinely pelted with stones when they tried to increase prices. In the Mughal empire’s biggest port of nearby Surat, traders frequently shut up shop and refused to do business unless the government met their requests, on a few occasions forcing the town’s governor to be sacked, to be replaced by someone more sympathetic to their interests. Another tactic was for crowds to halt prayers being said in mosques. The emperor’s name was read out at each sermon, so preventing prayers was a way of challenging the empire’s legitimacy.8

Early modern India was a highly literate society, where economic and political life was documented by meticulous record keeping. Every small society had its office, or kachchari, staffed by managers, administrators and clerks who kept tabs on who owned what. The 1600s saw the rise of the scribe, of men belonging to communities which had cultivated writing and accountancy as hereditary skills such as Kayasthas in eastern India or Chitpavan Brahmins in the west. Scattered through the archives of present-day South Asia are millions of documents produced by these men, a vast and underused record of the social history of India before British rule.9

The increase of paperwork in Mughal India did not lead to the growth of centralized governments that tried to control every detail of local society. Writing was a way of recording the complex details of local circumstances, not assimilating them to a single set of rules. Often, local records were simply an extension of the documents that households used to manage their finances. Records were often hidden or burnt when central officers came to inspect them, because they indicated the presence of taxable resources. Their seizure by agents of the state, before and during British rule, was fiercely resisted. In 1780 the Rani of Rajshahi in Bengal condemned East India Company officers for beating up her servants because they would not hand over accounts.10

Authority in Mughal India was based on the balance between trusting personal relationships and violence. Despite the flow of information on paper, face-to-face contact was crucial. Coming into the physical presence of the hakim (the ruler) was the central source of Mughal power. The exchange of gifts between rulers and subjects built and cemented reciprocal relationships. Important subjects gave gifts that ranged from coins to elephants, and were dressed by the ruler with a khil’at, or sir-o-pa (Arabic for dress, or Persian for head to foot). These were full sets of silk clothes which enacted their incorporation into the body politic. In this world written agreements, in Persian called parwanas, firmans, sanads and razenames, were used, but ‘most of the time, judgment’ in disputes that came before the ruler was ‘delivered only verbally and [is] not recorded in writing’. The East India Company’s later insistence on fixing its trading privileges in writing challenged the essentially oral nature of social relations in the subcontinent.11

Hard country

The decentralized, continually contestable character of politics created space for challengers to grow within the political structures of Mughal government. Rebellion was ever-present in the Mughal empire. It was not rare for insurgent local lords to ally themselves with the emperor’s rivals in court to try to loosen his grasp on central power. The fate of a regime depended on its capacity to create a broad but authoritative base of support, enticing potentially recalcitrant supporters with political and financial opportunity while demonstrating power by crushing out-and-out rivals. Emperors did not see it as beneath them to haggle over the terms on which a minor landholder would submit. In this fluid, argumentative political world there were few permanent alliances. Friendship, maintained by continual favours and constant conversation, was the only way to make sure someone stayed onside.

The greatest challenge to Mughal power came from a group of lower-caste peasant-warriors originally from the hilly regions of western Maharashtra. The Marathas started off as military contractors, guarding and raiding the trade routes which transported goods, particularly cotton, between the Deccan plain and the coast; commerce with Europe was significant in the initial build-up of Maratha power. Shahji Bhonsle, born in around 1600, built an army of perhaps 20,000 men as a sub-contractor of the Muslim Sultanates which ruled land south of Mughal territory in the Deccan. His son Shivaji built his own independent authority in the hills around Pune from the 1650s. With tactics honed in their home landscape, the Marathas avoided confronting enemies in battle, raiding their supply trains to strip them of food, then leaving them to starve in the dry Deccan before retreating to the mountains. ‘[E]ven the steed of unimaginable exertion is too weak to gallop over this hard country,’ Shivaji wrote to the Emperor Alamgir. ‘My home’, he said, ‘is not situated on a spacious plain.’12

There was little to distinguish the Maratha style of conquest and politics from that of the Mughals, other than short-term military tactics. In fact, they continually negotiated with Mughal authorities, constantly seeking good terms on which to submit to Mughal power. Only a set of avoidable misunderstandings ensured negotiations continually broke down, and allowed the Marathas to have more independence than other political forces. Shivaji had initially written to the Emperor Alamgir asking for the Mughal empire to acknowledge his authority over his lands in return for sending 500 soldiers to the Mughal army. He demanded portions of the land tax from neighbouring regions called cauth (a quarter), paid in return for not unleashing devastation on a particular area, plus the one-tenth share which usually went to the local king; together making 35 per cent of local resources as, in effect, protection money.13

To deal with these claims Alamgir sent his uncle and leading military commander Shaista Khan to negotiate Shivaji’s submission, offering the Maratha leader land grants but not giving in to his full demands. When negotiations broke down in 1663, Shivaji broke into the Mughal camp and killed Shaista’s son. Alamgir sent more soldiers. Even then, talking continued, and a deal was briefly reached. Shivaji was invited, along with 250 of his troops, to the Mughal capital to discuss with the emperor his submission to Mughal power. But the Maratha leader was insulted about being treated like a mere landholder rather than a king; he refused to put on the ceremonial robes he was offered, stormed out of Alamgir’s audience hall and fled back to Maharashtra. Even then, Shivaji agreed to peace, sending his son to Alamgir’s court to be recognized as a Mughal official as well as a small army to join the emperor’s main force.

Shivaji died in 1680. His last eleven years were spent in constant war with Mughal armies, leading to his eventual decision to have himself crowned as an independent Hindu king, an audacious act for a man who did not belong to the kingly Kshatriya caste. After his death, Shivaji’s empire was divided between factions that wanted to ally with members of the Mughal ruling class and those that did not. The Maratha regime was driven back to a series of hilltop hideouts scattered throughout southern India, and was all but extinguished. It expanded after Alamgir’s death in 1707, when weakened Mughal leaders sought the submission of Maratha generals on easier terms. Eventually, in 1719, the Mughals granted them 35 per cent of all local resources in western India as a way of keeping the area under some form of Mughal authority. The Marathas went on to become the leading political force in eighteenth-century India, powerfully shaping the process by which British power emerged. But their growth took place as a vassal of the Mughal empire.14

An absolute externality

The Marathas were very much part of the pattern of early modern Indian politics, with its shifting alliances, constant negotiation and capacious political structures able to embrace radically different faiths, institutions and ways of life. Christian Europe was a different world altogether, often as much as ten months away by sea. Stepping ashore after thousands of miles at sea, the Portuguese, Dutch, French and English knew little of the country and were unknown quantities. Europeans saw themselves as, in the words of Ranajit Guha, an ‘absolute externality’ to Indian society, an attitude that was often reciprocated. A Sinhalese observer of the Portuguese in the 1500s described them as ‘a race of white and very beautiful people, who wear boots and hats of iron and never stop in any place. They eat a sort of white stone and drink blood’.15

Since the days of the Roman empire, Europe had been connected to Asia, but it was linked by such an extensive chain of trading connections that the origins of communication were quickly lost. Gujarati merchants would buy spices and cloth, which they sold to Ottoman traders across the Arabian Sea, who in turn traded with Venetian merchants for widespread distribution throughout northern Europe. Some Europeans did travel to India but direct contact was limited.

The Portuguese nobleman Vasco da Gama led the first European ships to sail around the African coast, landing near Calicut in the summer of 1498. The plan was to open up the spice trade between India and Europe, and find isolated groups of Christians who would help the Portuguese challenge the Muslim Ottoman empire in Europe. The absence of everyday contact with Indian society meant the Portuguese were seen, and saw themselves, as strangers in a strange land. So great was their ignorance that Vasco returned to Europe believing that Kerala’s Hindu temples were in fact the churches of a heterodox Christian sect. The next decade saw an average of fifteen ships a year arriving to conquer a succession of forts on India’s south-west coast.16

The Portuguese would dominate the seaborne trade of this sliver of land for the next century. Their power was centred in Goa, halfway down the Indian peninsula. It spread by peppering the west coast of India with seventy sea forts. The Portuguese traded with a string of small principalities which were defended from the Mughals and Marathas by India’s great escarpment, the Western Ghats. Western India’s geography made it hard for land-based powers to interrupt their maritime activities, but it also stopped the Portuguese from having any impact on India’s interior.

From the 1500s, Portugal had claimed to be ‘lords of the sea’ throughout Asia. The theoretical basis of their assertion lay in Pope Alexander VI’s bequest of the trade of ‘the eastern extremities of Asia’ to Portugal in 1493. ‘[T]oo mad for the veriest visionary that ever played with the imagination’, this was a claim Europe’s Protestants fiercely contested. The Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius calling it ‘empty ostentation’, but the Portuguese tried to make it a reality by installing a form of military bureaucracy in the sea lanes of western India. Concerned first of all to establish a monopoly on commerce in spices and then horses, the Portuguese found it more profitable to tax other people’s trade. Heavily armed Portuguese ships forced every vessel sailing in the region to buy a pass, or cartaz, from them, and then to dock at Portuguese forts where they were required to pay customs duties.


On Sale
Oct 25, 2016
Page Count
584 pages

Jon Wilson

About the Author

Jon Wilson was born in Leicester, England, educated at Oxford University and the New School for Social Research in New York, and has taught history at King’s College London since 1999. He directs Historians in Residence, a project connecting history with public institutions in London. Alongside his historical research he comments in a range of media on contemporary British and South Asian politics and government.

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