Many have told of the East India Company's extraordinary excesses in eighteenth-century India, of the plunder that made its directors fabulously wealthy and able to buy British land and titles, but this is only a fraction of the story. When one of these men--Warren Hastings--was put on trial by Edmund Burke, it brought the Company's exploits to the attention of the public. Through the trial and after, the British government transformed public understanding of the Company's corrupt actions by creating an image of a vulnerable India that needed British assistance. Intrusive behavior was recast as a civilizing mission. In this fascinating, and devastating, account of the scandal that laid the foundation of the British Empire, Nicholas Dirks explains how this substitution of imperial authority for Company rule helped erase the dirty origins of empire and justify the British presence in India.
"The Scandal of Empire" reveals that the conquests and exploitations of the East India Company were critical to England's development in the eighteenth century and beyond. We see how mercantile trade was inextricably linked with imperial venture and scandalous excess and how these three things provided the ideological basis for far-flung British expansion. In this powerfully written and trenchant critique, Dirks shows how the empire projected its own scandalous behavior onto India itself. By returning to the moment when the scandal of empire became acceptable we gain a new understanding of the modern culture of the colonizer and the colonized and the manifold implications for Britain, India, and the world.
Dirks, dean of the faculty and a professor of anthropology and history at Columbia, sets out to dismantle the traditional explanation that Britain's empire in India was, in the famous words of Victorian historian J.R. Seeley, acquired 'in a fit of absence of mind.' According to Dirks, there was nothing accidental about Britain's 'conquest' of the subcontinent in the late 18th century. He argues that public exposure of the East India Company's scandalous corruption by the philosopher and politician Edmund Burke during the Warren Hastings impeachment trial in 1788 persuaded the government to step in and administer what the British regarded as a vulnerable, backward territory. This intrusive, imperialist behavior, claims the author, helped cover up the 'corruption, venality, and duplicity' of Britain's presence in India, which was recast as a civilizing mission that also happened to benefit the British economy. In examining the Hastings case, Dirks scores many points, vaporizing comforting visions of a benevolent empire, and he expertly unravels the complexities of Burke, too often caricatured as a reactionary. Publishers Weekly 20060213 [The Scandal of Empire] return[s] to the early history of British rule in India to reveal a catalogue of corruption and pillage, at appalling human cost, yet laundered through outrageous myths of imperial self-sacrifice. Dirks is up-front about the parallels: for India you can read Iraq, for Warren Hastings, Halliburton. He makes a frankly polemical and yet powerfully persuasive case. -- Michael Kerrigan The Scotsman 20060513 [Dirks] focuses mainly on eighteenth-century Britain and on one of its most dramatic political controversies, the impeachment and trial of Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of Bengal from 1774 to 1784...He tells the story passionately and with great intelligence...[A] brilliant series of reflections. -- Linda Colley The Nation 20060731 Nicholas Dirks's The Scandal of Empire offered me an illuminating look at the historical origins of corruption and scandal in the Indian subcontinent. -- Siddhartha Deb Times Literary Supplement 20061201 This is a robust polemic with which historians of the late eighteenth-century British state as well as the late eighteenth-century British empire will have to contend, not least because Nicholas B. Dirks convincingly argues that the two were inextricably linked. -- Philip Harling American Historical Review 20070401 Because, the author insightfully argues, the British Empire in Asia, and therefore the modern British nation, emerged from scandalous corruption and abuses of the colonized by its founders and practitioners, we must study how Britons of that day and how later historians rhetorically transferred the onus of scandal onto the colonized...Dirks's own extensive research and writing as a historian of India provide him with a perspective that enriches his rereading of the Empire's origins in scandal and elucidates them for scholars and lay readers alike. -- Michael Fisher Historian Makes an important contribution to the burgeoning scholarship dedicated to setting Britain and its empire in the same frame. Dirks acutely identifies and analyzes a fundamental transition in British imperial self-perceptions. From the 1760s to the 1830s, the Company empire was transformed from an enterprise that many Britons saw as morally questionable, into the exact reverse: a morally-inspired civilizing mission. In the process, the "scandalous" origins of empire became elided into a narrative of empire that justified British sovereignty and economic domination. Nor is it an accident, Dirks correctly suggests, that this rebranding of empire occurred in tandem with British state centralization, industrialization, and the consolidation of British nationalism. -- Maya Jasanoff Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History