The British historian discusses Empire Building, her latest book on the construction of British India till the 20th century.
The London-based historian of colonial India Rosie Llewellyn-Jones has been writing on Lucknow, its culture and its rulers, from the 1970s. Scholarly and engaging at the same time, her books on Lucknow are different from those by her predecessors in their sympathetic gaze, honed by her frequent visits to Lucknow and her knowledge of Urdu (she holds a PhD in Urdu from SOAS University of London). In her latest book, Empire Building: The Construction of British India, 1690-1860 (Penguin Viking), she undertakes the ambitious project of documenting how a bunch of aggressive, enterprising, and money-minded British men subjugated this vast, ancient, intractable land and its people with the intention of exploiting its legendary wealth. They took up vast building projects that besides overpowering the country gradually infiltrated the minds of the Indian subjects, thereby changing India forever. Llewellyn-Jones spoke to Frontline about her book and her research when she was in India recently. Excerpts from the interview:
You have in your long and distinguished career as a historian mostly written about colonial India. Would you interpret it as fascination?
Obviously, you have to be interested in a country to spend your academic life writing about it, but I would describe it more as curiosity than fascination.
In your earlier publications, you spilled the beans on British heroes in the manner of Lytton Strachey. You did not spare William Henry Sleeman, who, along with Lord William Bentinck, was credited with having eradicated the thuggees. This book, however, gives the impression that the British rulers were largely responsible for ushering in modernity in India. The British did build modern infrastructure, and if the natives benefited from it, it was only by default. Why this marked change in attitude?
The East India Company introduced ideas and technology from the West. It was not always successful, as I have shown, and in some cases, Indians preferred to continue using traditional methods. Where Indians did benefit immediately, and in great numbers, was with the introduction of the railways, which quickly became hugely popular—something the company had not anticipated. I have not changed my attitude towards company officials; I am looking at a different set of officials, with an objective eye.
In the introduction, you mention how Buddhist temples were reused by Sultan Saifuddin Firuz Shah of the Habshi dynasty to construct Firoz Minar in Gaur, West Bengal. How could you overlook the British plunder of green marble from Gaur to pave the floor of St John’s Church in Calcutta?
I could have mentioned the theft of marble from Gaur for the floor of St John’s Church, but this is the single documented example of theft to build a church. As such, it is not really representative of the much wider tendency of Muslim plunderers to raid Buddhist and Hindu architecture and, of course, of Hindu marauders to raid Buddhist architecture.
You have referred to corruption in the East India Company. How deeply entrenched was it?
It was as deeply entrenched as corruption in the Indian courts. We find Indian rulers demanding bribes and gifts of European articles like clocks and pistols before agreeing to meet company officials.
Robert Barker, a soldier, was ordered to survey Kolkata to find a location for fortification after the city was taken by the British from Siraj ud-Daulah, the last independent nawab of Bengal. You write that “cooleys” laughed at him and refused to do his bidding. How widespread was such contempt for British overlords?
Robert Barker was referring here to efforts to improve the fortification of the existing (old) Fort William. He was unusually honest in his description of the way coolies laughed at him and ignored him when he gave them orders. I have not found any other similar British reports.
How long did the British take to adapt building designs to local climatic conditions? Did it evolve over time or was a group of architects responsible?
I have indicated that there were very few British architects working in India at the time. This is why my book concentrates on the Bengal Engineers. It took them time to figure out how to build for Indian climatic conditions.
How willing were Indians to accept new technology from the West: silk, mint, gunpowder, railway?
In some cases, very willing; printing presses became popular and led to the establishment of Indian language newspapers, for example. Railways, I have already mentioned. Company-made gunpowder was superior to locally made gunpowder; it was up to Indian rulers if they wanted to adopt British methods of manufacture. Although the company’s investment in silk filature was ultimately unprofitable, the filatures, with their European methods of reeling silk, were sold to Indian buyers in the 1830s, including to Dwarkanath Tagore, the entrepreneur. The Nizam of Hyderabad continued to use the old methods of minting coins until the end of the 19th century, whereas other rulers adopted the steam-pressure method of minting.
Would you agree with the view that the establishment of hill stations and the attendant deforestation and destruction of flora and fauna were like time bombs waiting to explode, as they are doing now?
The East India Company, followed by the British Raj, developed the hill stations and, as I have shown in my book, decimated the forests and killed much of the wildlife. It is however, 75 years since Indian Independence—plenty of time to replant forests and bring in anti-hunting measures. The main problems that popular hill stations face today are lack of water and traffic congestion.
Modern scholarship has established that the thuggees were a bogey created by the East India Company. You have mentioned it as well. Were there other such colonial bugbears?
Some modern scholars believe that the thuggee was a problem exaggerated by the East India Company. I don’t. There is plenty of evidence to show that they were a long-established danger for Indian travellers. If the company was able to catch and jail thugs and murderers, then that was a positive outcome.
Contrary to what you have written, India already had a rich if limited tradition of cartography. Some early maps could not be studied because of litigation.
I didn’t say India had no maps. In fact, I took the trouble to describe the local maps that Tiefenthaler [Joseph Tiefenthaler, a Jesuit missionary and geographer] used, and I’ve illustrated the local map that Ozias Humphry [a leading English painter of the 18th century] used. I’m not aware of any other historian of India who has looked at local maps at this level.
What I haven’t found are detailed, general maps—that is, maps not drawn for the specific purpose of showing pilgrimage or trade routes. The first known maps were commissioned by Shuja-ud-daula (1732-1775) of Awadh from the French geographer, Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Gentil. If there are Indian-drawn maps before the 18th century, then I’m not aware of them. This doesn’t mean that they do not exist, but one would need to see them to evaluate them.
You write that women were excluded from the early clubs of Calcutta. But were not clubs in London too male bastions well into the 20th century?
Yes, of course, women were excluded from London clubs; some are still excluded from full membership, but I’m discussing clubs in India here, not Britain.
You present quite an interesting cast of characters. Are the British still so spirited as they used to be in the 19th and early 20th centuries?
No, I’m afraid not. While Britain used to administer and rule other countries, for good or bad, we have forgotten how to rule our own country. We now have an Indian, Rishi Sunak, as Prime Minister. So perhaps there is still some hope for the UK in the future.
Soumitra Das is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata.