For those of us who are familiar with the history of the British empire as well as post-Partition events, Shashi Tharoor’s book An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India
may seem like a rather basic read. Tharoor himself acknowledges the impossibility of condensing a book on colonial history within 300 pages, writing that the purpose of the book is not to provide a chronological history of events in the region, but rather to refute the claim that the British empire was, at the end of the day, a good thing.
An important rebuttal to colonial nostalgia
Whether it is the rise of British politicians who yearn for the good old days of Britain when it was truly great - Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s inappropriate recitation of Kipling (“the temple bells they say, Come you back, you English soldier”) during a recent visit to Myanmar comes to mind - or the yearning for a romanticised version of the Raj and the Victorian era in popular TV dramas like Indian Summers
and Downton Abbey,
the sad truth is that there has been a resurgence in colonial nostalgia in recent years.
Which is why Tharoor’s book is not only welcome, but necessary in today’s world. Starting with a comprehensive overview of the looting of India and the destruction of its industries, the writer reminds us over and over again that British rule began with the pillaging of a land and its people by a giant corporation, and ended with a system of government that treated an entire continent as sub-humans and used a “divide and rule” policy to cling on to power for as long as possible.
Whether the British will ever own up to their reign of terror is subject to debate, but An Era of Darkness plays an important role in holding the Raj to account, and is an important read for anyone inflicted by any ill-conceived love for the good old days of empire.
While there are certain bits of the book that seem to jump from one point to another too quickly, Shashi Tharoor’s arguments are foolproof. He uses extensive research and resources to demonstrate that whether it is the Indian Civil Service and legal system, or railways, tea and cricket – every aspect of British colonial rule that we now use as examples of a benign Empire were not only instruments to cement British rule, but were more often than not a lot more detrimental for locals than we now believe. His discussion on the Indian railway, and how much British shareholders actually profited from its creation, is particularly illuminating.
Should the past stay in the past?
The chapter on famines, forced labour and massacres perpetrated by the British will have you seething in anger but as many critics point out, all that happened a long time ago. Surely, the British are no longer culpable?
Tharoor only handpicks a few examples from many to show how colonial rule continues to impact the modern world. One doesn’t have to look too far - the Penal Code of Bangladesh and its criminalisation of homosexuality and legalisation of marital rape, among other things, shows how Victorian values continue to influence us here, today.
And as Tharoor points out, one of the worst parts of Empire was the total lack of self-respect it imposed on its subjects. For near on 200 years, the project of colonisation went hand in hand with the project of English superiority, and the colonisation of the mind is something that we are still struggling to fight today. To add insult to injury, colonial amnesia has already set in, and whether in Bangladesh or Britain, no schools have taken the initiative to teach this history in all its bloody details, something which to his credit, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has advocated for as the best way to dispel the misplaced nostalgia for Empire in modern day UK.
Whether the British will ever own up to their reign of terror is subject to debate, but An Era of Darkness
plays an important role in holding the Raj to account, and is an important read for anyone inflicted by any ill-conceived love for the good old days of empire.