Indian Summer

The Secret History of the End of an Empire

Alex von Tunzelmann

Henry Holt and Co.

Part One
In Their Gratitude Our Best Reward
IN THE BEGINNING, THERE WERE TWO NATIONS. ONE WAS A vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swath of the earth. The other was an undeveloped, semifeudal realm, riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses. The first nation was India. The second was England.
The year was 1577, and the Mogul emperors were in the process of uniting India. The domain spread twelve hundred miles along the Tropic of Cancer, from the eerie white salt flats of the Rann of Kutch on the shores of the Arabian Sea, to the verdant delta of the holy river Ganges in Bengal; and from the snowy crags of Kabul to the lush teak forests of the Vindhyan foothills. The 100 million people who lived under its aegis were cosmopolitan and affluent. In 1577, the average Indian peasant enjoyed a relatively higher income and lower taxation than his descendants ever would again. In the bazaars were sold gold from Jaipur, rubies from Burma, fine shawls from Kashmir, spices from the islands, opium from Bengal and dancing girls from Africa. Though governed by Muslims under a legal system based loosely on sharia law, its millions of non-Muslim subjects--Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists--were allowed freedom of conscience and custom.1
This empire was ruled by the world's most powerful man, Akbar the Great. Akbar was one of the most successful military commandersof all time, a liberal philosopher of distinction and a generous patron of the arts. He lived in unmatched opulence at Fatehpur Sikri, in rooms done out in marble, sandalwood and mother-of-pearl, cooled by the gentle fanning of peacock feathers. His hobbies were discussing metaphysics, collecting emeralds, hunting with cheetahs and inventing religions; he had as his plaything the Koh-i-Noor diamond, a gigantic, glittering rock weighing over 186 carats, then almost twice its present size.2 His family came from Mongolia, and his court showed a strongly Persian influence. But Indians were accustomed to foreign rule. Since the death of the indigenous emperor Asoka in 232 B.C., large parts of the subcontinent had been conquered by Turks, Afghans, Persians and Tocharians, as well as by Mongols. During a long and dramatic life, Akbar himself conquered and ruled over an area the size of Europe.
In England, meanwhile, most of the population of around two and a half million lived in a state of misery and impoverishment. Politically and religiously, the country had spent much of the sixteenth century at war with itself. Around 90 percent of the population lived in rural areas and worked on the land, going hungry during the frequent food shortages. They were prevented from moving into industry by the protectionist racket of guild entry fees. Begging was common, and the nation's ten thousand vagabonds were the terror of the land. The low standard of living endured by much of the population--two-fifths of which lived at subsistence levels--and squalid conditions in towns ensured that epidemics of disease were common. The Black Death still broke out periodically, as did pneumonia, smallpox, influenza and something unpleasant called "the sweat." Life expectancy stood at just thirty-eight years--less than modern Sudan, Afghanistan or the Congo, and about the same as Sierra Leone.3 The vast majority of the English people were illiterate and superstitious; the discontent of communities often boiled over into rioting and witch hunts.
But by the 1570s, from the filthy soil of England, the first green shoots of a pleasant land were sprouting forth. The economy began to recover from years of inflation and political instability. Efforts were made by the queen, Elizabeth I, toward religious tolerance, and by her government toward forcing communities to take some responsibilityfor the poor. After years of cultural backwardness, London society began to aspire to refinement. "They be desirous of new-fangles," complained the Elizabethan writer Philip Stubbs; "praising things past, condemning things present, and coveting things to come; ambitious, proud, light-hearted, unstable, ready to be carried away by every blast of wind."4 In 1577, a blast of wind drove the English to a world beyond the borders of Europe. At the request of the queen, the pirate and explorer Francis Drake set sail from Plymouth to bother the Spanish fleet in the Pacific and thence to circumnavigate the globe.
Drake was not the only man at the court of Elizabeth whose mind was improbably turning to world domination. In 1577, the philosopher, kabbalist and magus John Dee conjured up the first image of a "Brytish Impire." At the time, Dee's suggestion would have seemed fanciful, though very few Englishmen could have known enough about geopolitics to say so. Next to Akbar, Elizabeth was indeed a weak and feeble woman, with her dubious breeding, her squabbling and faction-ridden court, her cluttered and rickety palaces, and her grubby, unsophisticated, cold, dismal little kingdom. Nonetheless, the greater monarch generously agreed to humor her shabby emissaries at his fabulous court. They were overwhelmed: both Agra and Fatehpur Sikri were far larger than London and many times more wondrous. Ralph Fitch, a merchant, described gilded and silk-draped carriages pulled by miniature oxen, and roads lined with markets selling victuals and gemstones. "The King hath in Agra and Fatepore, as they do credibly report, a thousand Elephants, thirty thousand Horses, fourteen hundred tame Deer, eight hundred Concubines; such a store of Ounces, Tigers, Buffles, Cocks and Hawks that it is very strange to see," he wrote home.5 Fitch's eventual return with stories of riches undreamed of by the wondering English came at an apt moment in history. The mighty Spanish Armada had been defeated, and England was starting to feel confident and expansive. Fitch was swiftly made a governor of Elizabeth's Levant Company. It was the beginning of four centuries of intimacy and exchange, a love-hate relationship between India and Britain which would change the histories of both countries--and that of the whole world--beyond what even the magus Dee could have predicted.
Twenty-three years later, in 1600, Elizabeth granted a charter to "The Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies" for fifteen years. That expiry date was canceled by her heir, James I, giving the East India Company exclusive trading rights in perpetuity. The only caveat: if it failed to turn a profit for three consecutive years, it voided all its rights. Thus a beast was created whose only object was money. It would pursue this object with unprecedented success.
Over the following sixty years, the East India Company men's adventures in diplomacy brought them close to the Mogul emperors and allowed them to gain precedence over their Dutch and Portuguese rivals. Despite their obvious superficial differences, the Indians and the British were to find that they shared many of the same values and tastes. Both societies functioned through rigid class structures, glorified in their strongly disciplined military cultures and nurtured a bluff, unemotional secularism among their upper classes. Both prized swaggering but ultimately gallant men and spirited but ultimately demure women. Both enjoyed a sturdy sense of their own long histories and continual ascendancy. Complicated codes of etiquette were vital to their interaction; hunting on horseback and team sports dominated their social lives. As time went on, they would even discover a shared taste for punctilious and obstructive bureaucracy.
The British relationship with India would be of a different quality from those it had with its other colonies. India was always the "Jewel in the Crown"; the British found that they often respected, understood and liked the Indian people in a way that they did not on the whole respect, understand or like the Chinese, the Aborigines or the various tribes of Africa. The sympathy was so convincing that intermarriage between Britons and Indians became quite commonplace in the early years of the company. Many Britons emigrated permanently to India, where they set up home, started families and raised dynasties.6
But the history of empire did not remain so cozy for long. After the English republic fell and the monarchy was restored, King Charles II would turn the East India Company into a monster. With five acts, he gave it an amazing array of rights without responsibilities. By the1670s, the company could mint its own coin, maintain its own army, wage war, make peace, acquire new territories and impose its own civil and criminal law--and all without any accountability, save to its shareholders. This was pure capitalism, unleashed for the first time in history. Combined with the gradual fragmentation of Mogul control, which had begun after Akbar's death in 1605, it would prove to be almost unstoppable.
This private empire of money, unburdened by conscience, rampaged across Asia unfettered until the 1850s. Guided only by market forces, it was both incredibly successful and incredibly brutal. Adam Smith, the high priest of free trade and originator of the "invisible hand" theory of markets, was appalled by the result of a completely unregulated corporation. "The difference between the genius of the British constitution which protects and governs North America, and that of the mercantile company which oppresses and domineers in the East Indies, cannot perhaps be better illustrated than by the different state of those countries," he wrote in his 1776 classic, The Wealth of Nations.7 The British government was beginning to agree, and over the following decades regulation began to creep in, act by act. Eventually, in 1834, the parliament in London decided that an empire based on trade was in poor taste, and drew up a new charter. The East India Company was still to govern, but no more to trade. Presenting the scheme to parliament, Thomas Babington Macaulay freely admitted that licensing out British sovereignty to a private company was inappropriate. "It is the strangest of all governments," he said, "but it is designed for the strangest of all empires."8 But the British Crown could not bring its beast to heel. That would take a revolt by the Indians themselves.
In the century after Robert Clive's famous victory over the Nawab of Bengal at the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the company had embarked upon a run of military enterprises. Its armies fought the Burmese twice, annexing Burma in 1852; the Afghans once; and the Sikhs twice, taking the entirety of the Punjab by 1849. They took Gwalior in 1844 and conquered Sind in 1843, Nagpur in 1853, and Oudh in 1856. By then, almost 70 percent of the subcontinent could be called British territory.9 There had been some efforts at improvingthe lot of the people of India, too, though not all of them were welcomed. Efforts were made to set up British schools in which Indians might be educated. Suttee, the burning of live Hindu widows on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands, was banned in 1829. The company also attempted to stamp out thuggee, a brutal lifestyle adopted by bands of professional thieves. The thugs were given to strangulation of their victims and devoted to Kali, the goddess of death. They were held responsible for many thousands of murders in the early nineteenth century.10 But this policymaking and interference, these wars and laws, finally drew the attention of the Indian people to the fact that they had been subjugated. Companies, it was thought, did not conquer, and therefore no threat had been detected. The Moguls had been lulled by the promise of ever greater riches and had invited the East India Company across their own threshold. Once inside, it had been able to suck the wealth and riches out of India and impose its own regime--all by the grace of the Indian rulers.11 "The English have not taken India," wrote Mohandas Gandhi succinctly in 1908; "we have given it to them."12
There would be one great attempt to take it back by force, and that was the Indian Mutiny of 1857.13 Famously, the spark for the mutiny was the company's adoption of the Enfield rifle on behalf of its sepoys, the Indian soldiers serving in its army. The cartridges for this particular model were supplied in greased paper, which had to be bitten through before they were used. Rumors spread among the sepoys that the grease contained tallow derived from cow or pig fat, thereby offending both Hindus, who revered the cow, and Muslims, who were forbidden to eat the pig. It has never been proven whether the grease was actually objectionable, or whether the protests were opportunistically started by Indian agitators to damage the company.14
Whatever the truth, the company made a public point of replacing its grease with a version made from ghee and beeswax; but this action came too late. The rumors had served their purpose. The scandal was the final insult in a catalog of British wrongs against the Indians. The conquest of states, the commandeering of private lands, the propping up of corrupt local landlords who used torture to extract revenues,the arbitrary imprisonments without trial, the evangelism of Christianity and the attacks on Indian cultural traditions--for not everyone had welcomed the outlawing of suttee--had pushed company dominance too far.15
After several small-scale rebellions, the mutiny exploded with full force at the town of Meerut, just northeast of Delhi. On 24 April 1857, eighty-five troopers of the Third Light Cavalry had refused to use their cartridges. A court-martial composed of fifteen Indian officers found against the troopers on 8 May and sentenced them each to five to ten years' hard labor. The following day, two regiments at Meerut turned on their officers, sprung the eighty-five imprisoned sepoys from jail and pillaged the town. The English were shot, beaten to death, hacked at with swords, burned alive. Among the victims was a seven-year-old girl, her skull sliced in two by a single stroke from a blade; and pregnant twenty-three-year-old Charlotte Chambers, the fetus ripped out of her womb and dumped contemptuously on her breast.16
By the morning of 11 May, the mutinous troops had marched south to Delhi and joined with a garrison there. The rebels took the Red Fort, home of the heir to the Mogul Empire, Bahadur Shah II. Bahadur Shah was a gentle and unimposing Muslim of eighty-one years of age. He occupied his hours with poetry and courtly etiquette, was said to believe rather eccentrically that he could transform himself into a gnat, and had no jurisdiction beyond the walls of the fort. He had been propped up and pensioned by the company, which found him useful in sustaining the illusion of Indian self-government. 17 The rebels seized on this reluctant and bewildered old man and convinced him that he ought to demand his long-lost power back.
The restoration of the emperor, precarious though it was, suggested that there was a credible alternative to British private rule. As the news spread, uprisings surged across north and central India, agitating one-third of the subcontinent by mid-June. But India was a country of deep divisions, in which disparate factions had only been united by their opposition to foreign rule. Where the British were ejected, these factions were left to face the enormity of their differences.Meanwhile, the British retained the support of the Sikhs of the Punjab, the Pathans of the North-West Frontier, the Gurkhas of Nepal, and the armies of Bombay and Madras. Neither Calcutta nor Simla, the two seats of the company's administration, was attacked.18 Almost all the princes stayed loyal to the British. The problem that had dogged the subcontinent since the death of Asoka, and would continue to dog it until 1947, was becoming clear. Karl Marx had recently been struck by the problem of India's deep internal divisions. It was, he wrote, "a country not only divided between Mohammedan and Hindu, but between tribe and tribe, between caste and caste; a society whose framework was based on a sort of equilibrium, resulting from a general repulsion and constitutional exclusiveness between all its members. Such a country and such a society, were they not the predestined prey of conquest?"19
Within weeks, the government in London sent troops to the company's aid. The British comeback would prove to be as brutal as it was predictable. Whole villages were burned, men lynched and shot, and women raped. The streets of Delhi were stormed and lay filled with the bloated and stinking corpses of sepoys, provoking an outbreak of cholera which killed many of the remaining inhabitants. Holy idols were smashed as the plunderers searched for hidden jewels. Muslim rebel leaders were sewn into pigskins and force-fed pork; Hindus were doused with cows' blood. Other instigators were strapped to the muzzles of cannon and blown to pieces.20 Bahadur Shah II ran away and hid in the tomb of Akbar's father, Humayun--a mausoleum to the south of Delhi that stood as a monument to prouder Mogul days. The British found him, carried him off and confined him to a house in Delhi; there he was kept to be gawked at by any European who cared to inspect him.21 One family had a particularly lucky escape. Police constable Gangadhar Nehru was fleeing Delhi across the Jumna River with his wife, Indrani, and their four children. The family was from Kashmir, with the typically pale skins and hazel eyes of that region's people--so pale that some British soldiers mistook one of the daughters for an English girl and accused Gangadhar of kidnapping her. Only his son's proficiency in English, and the testimony of a passerby, saved the family.22 Four years later,Indrani would give birth to another son, Motilal Nehru, who would in his turn father the first prime minister of independent India.
And so, in 1858, the relationship between Britain and India moved into its most intense phase: the raj.23 On 2 August, the Government of India Act transferred all the East India Company's rights to the British Crown--which made it clear that the status quo would remain. Across great expanses of India, the maharajas, rajas and nawabs would be left in charge, with only one official British Resident present in each of their capitals to keep an eye on things. The company had long reasoned that ruling would be far easier through existing structures than through new creations. The landowners and princes propped up by the British enjoyed almost unlimited power and consequently felt no need to challenge the British raj. In 1858, Queen Victoria proclaimed: "We hold ourselves bound to the natives of our Indian territories by the same obligation of duties which bind us to all our other subjects. In their prosperity will be our strength; in their contentment our security; and in their gratitude our best reward."24
In response to this spirit of cooperation, India became the favorite investment opportunity of European financiers. Industry boomed, with the production and processing of tea, coffee, cotton, jute and indigo. New roads and railways crisscrossed the plains and wove in and out of the hills. The first steamships began to arrive at Bombay. After the Suez Canal opened in 1869, it was possible to get from Europe to India in just three weeks--half the time it had taken aboard the old sailing boats. Young Britons would often serve a tour of duty in India, either on military or civil service. It was easy for these fellows to get used to the luxuries to which a white skin and the low cost of living entitled them. Attitudes hardened, rather than liberalized, as the empire went on: Indians were commonly referred to as natives in the eighteenth century, coolies by the end of the nineteenth and niggers by the beginning of the twentieth. Eventually, the Britons would return to sleepy cottages in the Home Counties, bringing back rugs, jewels and a taste for curried food, along with a dreamy nostalgia for their days as lords of a tropical paradise. The enthusiasm caught on at the highest level. Queen Victoria herself, the first and last empress regnant of India, was deeply interested in Indian cultureand even learned to speak Hindustani. She was tutored by her most trusted attendant, Abdul Karim, to whom she developed an attachment that verged on the romantic. Though she never made it to India herself, she sent her son, the future Edward VII, to meet the princes and shoot tigers in 1875. He was accompanied by a young aide-de-camp, Prince Louis of Battenberg.25
By the late nineteenth century, the cream of Indian society began to enjoy its British connections. Fashionable Indians went to Oxford or Cambridge for their education, and London for their tailoring; they read voraciously the classics of English literature and often spoke English as their first language. New generations were growing up with notions of equality, democracy, citizenship, blind justice and fair play, only to discover that none of these rights actually applied to them. Indians were all but prevented from joining the administration of their own country by the deliberately obstructive entry procedure for the Indian civil service. Certain clubs, public places and even streets were designated "Europeans only."
The Indian upper classes found it hard to reconcile their proud Anglophiliac upbringings with the reality of their exclusion. At Eton, Harrow and Winchester, they identified themselves with the gilded youth of a glorious empire. Only in adulthood did they discover that their race relegated them to the second rank. "The fact that the British Government should have imposed this arrangement upon us was not surprising; but what does seem surprising is that we, or most of us, accepted it as the natural and inevitable ordering of our lives and destiny," wrote one of those Harrow-educated sons of India, many years later. "Greater than any victory of arms or diplomacy was this psychological triumph of the British in India."26
Those words would be written by Gangadhar Nehru's grandson, Jawaharlal Nehru. But in 1877, Britain was still ascending toward the peak of its global influence. Exactly three hundred years after a sorcerer had suggested the idea to another queen of England, Victoria assumed the imperial throne in absentia during a splendid durbar in Delhi, her crown resting on a gilded cushion. As the massed ranks of the Indian army cheered their new empress, one of the most terrible famines of all history was under way in the south. Five million wouldwaste and die, while the viceroy and his government clucked about maintaining "strict regard for the severest economy" and refused to undertake any further "disastrous expenditure."27 The mechanisms of empire had primed India for revolution. The only surprise would be just how long it would take.
INDIAN SUMMER. Copyright © 2007 by Alex von Tunzelmann. All rights reserved. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.