Book Review: Inglorious Empire

Inglorious Empire: What The British Did To India, by Shashi Tharoor

There is an audience for this book, but I am not a part of that audience. Although this book is not extremely long, and it is in fact an expansion of the author’s talk in which he argued against British needs to pay reparation over its imperialism, this book is in fact too long to fulfill the author’s purposes. Inside this book there are decent arguments to be made against the British imperialism system, but combined with this there are some arguments that simply don’t hold up (the author’s hostility to biblical morality and to Christianity in general is unseemly and detracts from the worth of his argument). Once one takes away the dross from the author’s argument, there is at least something of worth to be found here, if it is couched in terms that are not well expressed on the part of the author. One can sense that he is trying to avoid the blaming of imperial powers for everything that is wrong in post-colonial nations as if they did not bear responsibility as well, and he is also conscious of the failures of India with regards to economic development that it bears responsibility for, even as the the author finds much to blame in rapacious corporate imperialism during the period of the rule of the British East India Company.

This book is about 250 pages long and it is divided into eight chapters, beginning with a chronology, acknowledgements, and a preface. After that the author discusses the looting of India that happened starting in the mid 1750’s or so when the power of the British East India company became paramount first in Bengal and then in other parts of India (1). This is followed by a question of what political unity Britain gave India (2), as well as a look at Democracy, the Press, the Parliamentary system, and the rule of law (3). After that comes a somewhat self-serving discussion of how the British used divide and rule in India to powerful effect (4), along with a discussion of the issue of enlightened despotism (5). This is followed by a discussion of the remaining case for empire (6), a coda on the imperial balance sheet (7), along with a chapter on the messy afterlife of empire (8). This is followed by notes and references, a bibliography, and an index. At best, it may be said that this book at least attempts to be fair-minded, although it should be admitted that the author considerably undersells the case for Christianity as a benefit to India and also oversells the unity of India before the raj, but these are lapses that spring naturally from the author’s biases.

If the author were more articulate and had less of a visceral hostility towards Christendom and the West in general, this book would not be written so clumsily and would likely be more appealing to patriotic Westerners. This is a book that manages to find the place where it is too accommodating to appeal to those whose hypocritical hatred of the West is too much to listen to such a restrained argument, and too clumsily worded to appeal to those who quite properly love God and their country. And that is a shame, as there are too few books that seek to present the history of imperialism in unsparing honesty without being self-serving in only blaming Westerners for the negative effects of empires. In general, it may be agreed that imperialism is a bad thing when it is exercised by people on others, and in particular we may say that an indirect empire where companies exploit vulnerable societies for profit without sufficient accountability are particularly troublesome because they lack the concern for people that locally-based rulers have. This is something well worth considering.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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