Book Review: Jeremy Black's Imperial Legacies

tags: imperialism, British history, books

Jeff Roquen is an independent scholar based in the United States.


Throngs of people lined the excited streets of London.  For hours, joyous crowds joined the revelry to mark the sixtieth year of the reign of Queen Victoria and celebrate the accomplishments of the British Empire – the largest empire in world history. After attending an event with Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Buckingham Palace the previous evening, the diminutive Queen began a six-mile journey in an ornate open carriage – powered by eight off-white horses – to St. Paul’s cathedral on Tuesday, 22 June 1897 for her Diamond Jubilee. Amid countless numbers of hanging Union Jacks, deafening waves of applause and outbursts of “God Save The Queen,” British citizens paused to express pride in their monarchy and expansive Empire as a vehicle of progress for peoples across the world.  


During its decline from the end of World War II (1945) to the latter-half of the twentieth century, a near-universal consensus among international scholars rendered a far-different verdict on the British Empire.  Rather than an engine of enlightenment through the promotion of “Christianity, commerce and civilization,” an army of new academics denounced British imperialism as a progenitor of racism, economic exploitation, cultural coercion and violence.  By the end of the twentieth century, few politicians defended British colonialism. When Oxford-trained, conservative historian Niall Ferguson published Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and Lessons for Global Power (2002), most of the tenured intelligentsia panned his attempt to quasi-rehabilitate “the empire on which the sun never sets” as a flawed yet progressive force in the making of the modern world.  


For more than a decade and a half, his defense of British exceptionalism stood virtually alone until the recent publication of Imperial Legacies: The British Empire around the World (2019) by Jeremy Black. Despite being an esteemed professor at the University of Exeter with dozens of influential publications on world, military and European history, his new survey on the long era of British hegemony only partly succeeds in redefining the British Empire as a relatively liberal and humane actor on a world stage replete with despotic states and autocratic empires.  While Black renders judgments on the contours of British imperialism on four continents, the crux of his revisionist semi-apologia targets the colonial histories of India and China. 


The British and India

In the process of furnishing a broad, composite sketch of a world strewn with competing and emerging empires in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and delving into the complex relations between Britain and the Indian subcontinent in the fourth chapter, Black challenges sweeping stereotypes of British plunder and conquest. Hence, the author begins by noting that the British East India Company, which maintained an army to protect its surging commercial interests in the region, actually recruited Dalits or “untouchables” from the lowest Indian caste to wage an armed struggle against the formidable Maratha Empire (1674-1818).  At the Battle of Koregaon near the Bhima River (south of present-day Mumbai) on 1 January 1818, the combined British East India Company-Dalit forces crushed the army of Peshwa (leader) Baji Rao II and hastened the collapse of Maratha rule. Far from subjugation, Black contends that the victory at Koregaon constituted a substantive opening salvo against the oppressive caste system and symbolized an oft-forgotten and underappreciated dynamic of British imperialism – the willing cooperation of indigenous peoples eager for liberation, trade and/or protection from other empires.  In further crediting the British administration for its valiant attempts to eradicate two ultra-patriarchal traditions, female infanticide and Sati (an ancient Hindu-Sikh custom whereby widows immolated themselves upon the funeral pyre of their deceased husbands as a final expression of love and grief) and ushering in lengthy periods of peace in parts of India, the author bolsters his portrayal of the British as a largely civilizing influence. Although Britain developed commerce, transferred medical and transportation technology to the subcontinent and combatted socially-destructive superstitions, Black vastly understates the baleful underside of British rule.


In fact, that underside appears in the foundation of East India Company and its evolution from a trading presence of less than three hundred representatives to wielding effective control of India by the mid-nineteenth century.  As commerce spiked through exports from Bombay (Mumbai), Calcutta (Kolkata) and Madras (Chennai), the East India Company and its army formed alliances with princes.  Six years after repelling an attack mounted by a Mughal viceroy (nawab) and allied soldiers from the French East India Company at Arcot (1751), Major General Robert Clive established British supremacy in Bengal by gaining the support of Hindu elites with shrewd diplomacy, achieving an armed victory at the Battle of Plassey (1757) and replacing the disesteemed nawab with a pliant, pro-Company governor.  Thereafter, the reorientation of the agricultural economy in Bengal to suit British ideology and interests plunged a significant percentage of Indian farmers into poverty, despair and death.  In some cases, the pursuit of well-intentioned, paternalistic policies disrupted socio-economic mores maintained by indigenous populations and resulted in deleterious outcomes.  Due to their unshakeable faith in largely unregulated free-markets (laissez-faire) and the “laws” of supply and demand to produce prosperity, colonial officials, who adhered to the non-interventionist economic dogma of Adam Smith and his seminal work The Wealth of Nations (1776), initially refused to set-up direct relief programs during the Agra Famine of 1837-38 – a catastrophe that claimed 800,000 lives.  Subsequently, the British directed additional time, effort and resources to preventing and ameliorating the effects of drought and disease in India.


Somewhat inexplicably, Black only makes a passing reference to the seismic event that defined British-Indian relations in the nineteenth century.  On 10 May 1857, years of simmering discontent over the erosion of social and economic sovereignty to the East India Company exploded into a subcontinent-wide revolt. On the perception that the paper ammunition cartridges for their Enfield P-53 rifles, which required users to open the packets of gunpowder with their teeth, might contain grease made of pork and beef (sacrilegious to Muslims and Hindus respectively), many of the 300,000 sepoys (Indian soldiers serving in the East India Company army) turned on the regime.  News of the inadvertent British slur on the two major religions of India spread quickly and triggered scores of localized and regional rebellions. As the emerging nation of India divided between pro and anti-British loyalties, a gruesome, atrocity-laden war raged until November 1858. Although victorious in thwarting nascent nationalist aspirations, the monarchy and the British government took direct control over India in order to reorganize British-Indian affairs on more equitable lines.  Strikingly, Black fails to appreciate the underlying cause of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 – the semi-tyrannical rule maintained by “the terror of [British] arms” – a strategy initially articulated by none other than Robert Clive. 


Under the Raj (1858-1947), Indians remained marginalized on their own soil.  In 1883, a legislative bill proposed to place British citizens under the jurisdiction of Indian courts.  From their regnant belief in racial hierarchy and superiority of Anglo-Saxons to other races, outraged Britons vociferously protested and succeeded in enervating the act.  At the same time, the administration further consolidated control over the economy by seizing the salt trade and depriving its subjects from storing or marketing the near-universally consumed commodity.  After decades of fear and passivity, tens-of-thousands of Indians – stirred by Mohandas Gandhi and his Satyagraha (non-violent civil disobedience) campaign – challenged British control.  In March-April 1930, Gandhi and his dedicated followers trekked more than two hundred miles to the Arabian Sea to declare its salt the property of India.  Despite arresting of approximately 60,000 dissenters in retaliation for their defiant passive-resistance (including Gandhi), the British struggled to restore order.  Indeed, a majority of Indians from the fin de siècle to the eve of Indian independence (1947) shared Gandhi’s view of British imperialism in 1905-06:

And why do I regard the British rule as a curse?  It has impoverished the dumb millions by a system of progressive exploitation…It has reduced us politically to serfdom.  It has sapped the foundations of our culture…[and] it has degraded us spiritually.


While the British deserve credit for opening up segments of the Indian economy, introducing the concept of parliamentary democracy, combatting extreme forms of patriarchy and deliveringhumanitarian aid, the East India Company and the Raj must also be charged with harming Indian society with policies and laws designed to circumscribe individual rights through socio-economic exclusion. 


Britain & China: A Duality of Imperial Histories

In Chapter 5, Black provocatively re-interprets the historical development of China through a lens overly favorable to the British.  From the mid-nineteenth-century to the triumph of Mao Zedong and totalitarian communism in 1949, the discursive underpinnings of Chinese nationalism relied on vitriolically denouncing the British Empire for waging two wars against Beijing (1839-1842, 1856-1860) to preserve the lucrative opium trade irrespective of its prohibition by the state.  To buttress the British case, the author declares opium-use not only failed to roil the sensibilities of many (if not most) peoples of East and South Asia but its consumption garnered extensive support.  While on-point in his assertion, Black distorts the social and political frame by neglecting key (and utterly imperative) details.  On the eve of the First Opium War (1839-1842), for example, nearly thirty-percent of Chinese males had become addicted to the drug.  The consequent socio-health crisis in China, which led Beijing to issue decrees curtailing its use, began to alter perceptions of the narcotic, and restrictions on the trade proved increasingly popular among the Chinese.  In Britain, public opinion also bifurcated.  A substantial coalition in Parliament, including future Prime Minister William Gladstone, railed against the prospect of dispatching the Royal Navy to “open” China to free trade and protect the commercial status of opium.  Yet, the government deftly maneuvered to narrowly overcome spirited opposition in the House of Commons and prosecuted the war until the surrender of Beijing on 29 August 1842.  When delegates from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) arrived to sign the Treaty of Nanking under threat of British bombardment, a “Century of Humiliation” had commenced.  From the First Opium War until the World War II, Imperial China would endure repeated invasions and ignominious defeats by Britain, France and Japan. 


If Black erroneously dilutes the hubristic motives and the sordid impact of British imperialism on China during the Opium Wars, his riposte to the narrative ascribing the mid-nineteenth century decline of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) to Western intervention aligns with the larger geopolitical realities of the period.  In 1850, the corrupt Manchu elite faced a formidable rebellion throughout southern China from discontented, impoverished farmers and their fanatical leader Hong Xiuquan – a syncretic Christian zealot with a warped messiah-complex and a plan to re-distribute land on an egalitarian basis.  To achieve their myopic utopia, however, the Taipings (followers of Hong Xiuquan) turned to forced conscription and committed countless atrocities against both non-partisan and resistant peasants.  To quash the revolt, Beijing welcomed the arrival of British Major General Charles Gordon to command the Manchu-allied, Ever Victorious Army in a series of pivotal campaigns in the latter stages of the civil war.  Only months after battling Imperial Britain in the Second Opium War (1856-1860), the Qing Dynasty quickly reversed course and allied with its Western adversary to maintain power – a decision that crossed into realpolitik


For his professionalism and vital role in ending the fourteen-year war that claimed upwards of 20-30 million lives, the Emperor and other Manchu leaders bestowed military titles and commendations upon Gordon.  Hence, Imperial Britain both violated and rescued the sovereignty of China in accordance with mutual national interests.  As such, the tacit alliance between Beijing and London during the Taiping Rebellion partly undercuts the Chinese claim of “humiliation” and decline at the hands of the British and illuminates how the protean temper of realist politics structured state-to-state relations – as ultimately purported by Black.  


Paradoxes without Conclusions: The Elaborate Legacy of the British Empire 

On 6 February 2012, the United Kingdom launched a week of Diamond Jubilee events to honor the sixty-year reign of Queen Elizabeth II.  At the time her succession in 1952, Winston Churchill had recently returned to 10 Downing Street to serve his second and final stint as prime minister. Despite the loss of India to independence five years earlier, the British Empire remained intact and seemed poised to survive after effectively mobilizing its colonies to defeat Nazi Germany. Only a few decades later, however, Imperial Britain fell under the weight of inexorable nationalist tides in Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Nigeria and elsewhere – prompting myriad scholarly assessments of its legacy – a legacy not easily ascertained due to the vicissitudes of its mission and rule.  


Over nearly three centuries, the British Empire 1) engaged in economic exploitation and increased trade and wealth, 2) aided and abetted the slave trade and led in the worldwide abolition of slavery, 3) rendered irreparable damage to indigenous cultures and communitiesand introduced (and sometimes imposed) the concepts of parliamentary democracy and individual liberty for the benefit of minority populations and 4) ruled with degrees of repression and protected peoples from the rule of other empires bent on abject subjugation (i.e. the Empire of Japan, Nazi Germany, USSR).  While Black lapses into a biased apologia and generalizes at the expense of factual evidence in several instances, Imperial Legacies, on the whole, delivers a long overdue re-contextualization of the British Empire in an age of empires and nonetheless possesses a plethora of salient historical judgments worthy of scholarly consideration.

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