A History of British India: The Torch Podcast

An Interview with Professor Hayden Bellenoit, Ph.D.

On this episode of The Torch, host Ed Leon and professor Hayden Bellenoit discuss the complicated and tumultuous British rule of India. Listen in as they examine the global saga of colonialism and imperialism, including the clashing interests of commerce, culture, and sovereignty that it created.

The following transcript has been edited slightly for readability.

Ed Leon: Welcome, and we are so glad you are producing this course. It’s called A History of British India, and it’s releasing in February of 2017. But let’s get into it, because this is a fascinating subject. There is so much to talk about. When did the British first come into contact with India? What was the catalyst? What was going on? How did they arrive?

Hayden Bellenoit: Well the British had known, like Europeans, a lot about India before the 1600s, but it was all very kind of mythical and orientalist in a way. The land of riches and stuff like that. The first real forays was the formation of  The East India Company in 1600, which was largely a way to get them to trade effectively with India and compete with the Portuguese, and bypass the middle east and the Arab and Muslim traders. They initially came to India as traders, and they weren’t initially interested in politics.

Portrait of ship approaching Bombay, India
Ship approaching Bombay, India

Ed Leon: Really? What was going on in India at the time? What did the British find?

Hayden Bellenoit: Well, if you went there in the mid 1600s, the British would have found probably the height of the Mughal Empire, which was basically a Muslim Empire which ruled over India,who were descendants of Tamarlane, and Genghis Khan. They gave a great all India scope to India, and it was probably one of the wealthiest empires in the world at the time.

Image of Emperor Babur
Emperor Babur is the founder of the Mughal Dynasty of Northern India

Ed Leon: Really? What was the culture like? Was there a caste system that would come later? Were these things in play at the time, or no?

Hayden Bellenoit: Oh yeah, caste was always there. What the Mughals were really successful in doing is, part of the rule creates what you call an Indo Islamic culture, both politically and in some degrees spiritually as well. A real sort of overlap between Hindu and some Muslim spiritual tenets. It would have defied the categorizations of modern observers, who would be like, “Well you are either Hindu or you are Muslim.” In some cases it was actually really hard to tell if you went into some parts of India.

Ed Leon: How did the East India Company get the upper hand getting into India? Because there were a lot of other commercial enterprises I guess poking around at the time.

Hayden Bellenoit: Well it’s a really interesting question. It’s a kind of question that even a lot of historians have a lot of arguments over. It seems as if what we know now the East India Company really didn’t pull a Caesar, Veni Vidi Vici, we came we saw we conquer. They took advantage of things that were going on already. For example in the 18th century the Mughal empire is still there, but you have these regional kingdoms that emerge and they are consolidating their domains. They are practicing more money to the army, building up states.

All these other commercial trends, the East India Company finds itself to a large degree at the right place at the right time in Bengal. They engage in a lot of political chicanery to come to power in Bengal.

Ed Leon: Oh really? Tell me a little about that. I love chicanery, that’s always good. Let’s talk about the chicanery.

Hayden Bellenoit: Oh chicanery is always fun. They actually conspire with a disaffected general in one regional kingdom’s army named Mir Jafar. They basically promised him if you look the other way at the next battle, we will reward you handsomely. Even Mir Jafar today in India and Pakistan is taken as like saying Benedict Arnold basically in America. They take advantage of this. It’s in Bengal where the British, where this company acquires political power even though it’s a publicly traded company.

Ed Leon: How did it go from a publicly traded company to in essence a political force? Would this be the equivalent of … Is there a modern equivalent? Like if Halliburtan had ended up running the government in Iraq?

Hayden Bellenoit: I’ve heard my students say that before. There is really no modern equivalent because state sovereignty is so unchallenged in a way. The East India Company had some of the functions of a government. It had it’s own army for example which was basically a private mercenary force, but it had a political department, it had secret correspondence, some of the workings of state craft. But it acquires the right after it defeats an army in Bengal in 1757 and again 1764.

Then, the year later, it acquires the right to collect revenue in Bengal. As I’ve made throughout the course, to really understand this you have to know that the right to tax and collect revenue is the ultimate of a sovereign state. They are transformed from what is in theory a commercial trading company and they also take on the prerogative of politics and government.

Ed Leon: Right, like a de facto government. But that is one area. India is a large sub-continent. How did their influence spread to the other regions?

Hayden Bellenoit: Well it wasn’t just in Bengal. The British had trading posts, this company, in southern India, in modern day Madras, but also in Bombay, which we call Mumbai today. They are basically trading forts. Because they were part of the company, this sovereignty started to then get extended. In other parts like in western India and southern India, they fought wars with regional kingdoms. Often the pretext was that the British wanted to protect their commercial and trading interests. Of course their commercial interests could be stretched to absurd degrees is really what they often did.

Ed Leon: Right. How did their influence, as they start to take on more and more power, how did it affect the populations? The Hindus, the Muslims. How did it affect the populations of India?

Hayden Bellenoit: That’s a great question because I think really this course is really covering all of that. It’s very complex. One of the first real influences upon Indian people you certainly find in Bengal or any other parts where the company now has the ability to tax is really higher taxation. The British are much more inflexible about waiving taxes, particularly given the monsoon vagaries in India, where harvests can go up and down.

Ed Leon: Yeah, talk about that a little bit. That has a big cultural and societal impact, right?

Hayden Bellenoit: Yeah, before British rule and the company, even Muslim Mughal rules of India always were a bit more sort of moderated by the monsoons. If you had a bad harvest, they might waive or delay the taxes,. But the British don’t acknowledge this, because remember they are, technically, still until the 1850s, a commercial trading company. They have obligations to their shareholders. That’s something that puts them one foot in India, one foot in Britain. It’s a contradiction that’s not resolved.

Ed Leon: In the course, and I don’t want to … Spoiler alert your course, but you do paint a little bit of a dark picture of the British time in India. Talk a little bit about that. Were their policies driven by greed? Racism? Both? Talk a little bit about that.

Image of India and UK flags side by side
India and UK Flags

Hayden Bellenoit: I’d be happy to. Yeah, I think as I’ve been teaching it and doing more research over the years, I have become more critical of British rule in a way. Not in a simplistic way, but I think what I’ve come to appreciate now, particularly because my second book is being on fiscal administration and taxes in early colonial India, I really see the British as really inflexible about taxes.

To me, fiscal policy is a gauge of a country’s morality. Where you get your money from and where you spend it. I see also increasingly, I’m more appreciative now of the role that racism played in colonial India. I think honestly, and this might get me in trouble with some of my colleagues across the pond, but I don’t think they pay enough attention to racism. It’s kind of just cloth papered over. I see it more and more because it wasn’t always explicit, it was sometimes very subtle and insidious in a way.

Ed Leon: In what ways? Give an example.

Hayden Bellenoit: For example, this is the more famous case. Later in the late 19th century, the Indian Civil Service, the ICS, was completely almost dominated by very elite, white, British men from Oxford and Cambridge University. In theory, it was open to Indians, but there were so many hurdles that made it impractical. One Indian ICS candidate was failed because he coughed during the examination. If that’s not racism, I don’t know what is.

Ed Leon: Right. Were there any positives? Did they do any good for the country?

Hayden Bellenoit: You know, historians do generally try to avoid making moral judgments. I can think of many who do and they get in really hot water for it. But, you know, I think when people on the outside look at colonial India, the first thing that people say usually is, “Oh, the British built railways, and courts, and universities, and things like that.” But it was more complicated than whether it was good or bad.

Because for example, the railways, because India has one of the largest railway networks in the world today. It was initially to benefit the army, to move troops around. It was also just incidentally you could move people, commerce and goods, and pilgrims and Gandhian led nationalists around later. It’s almost janus faced faced in a way.

Ed Leon: Talk about the uprising of 1857.. That was a watershed moment.

Hayden Bellenoit: Yeah, it really is a watershed moment, at least constitutionally, because it’s after that that the East India Company becomes extinct, in India for all intents and purposes. Because they couldn’t handle it in a way. It is the beginning of the period of what you call “The Raj” . Raj is an Indian word that means rule. It’s implicit British rule, the British Raj.

That’s the period of Indian history which I think a lot of people in the west and most Americans are familiar with. They might think of hill estates and servants bringing them coffee and things like that. This is all kind of a removed notion, but this is the Raj period after the rebellion of 1857.

Tea plantations and Muthirappuzhayar River in hills near Munnar, Kerala, India

Ed Leon: Right, and the difference is that the British government was now officially in charge of India as apposed to this kind of para military commercial enterprise.

Hayden Bellenoit: Well the company was really an ambiguous entity. It was called in a way the merchant sovereign and the sovereign merchant. It had inherit contradictions, but the Raj period just makes it clear. India is a proper British colony. There is a viceroy who is her majesty’s representative.

Ed Leon: What changed? What was the transformation for the Indian people?

Hayden Bellenoit: Well the first changes you really see are in British attitudes. The British, because they actually nearly get kicked out of India, they become much more racially aloof and sort of reactionary. They start to kind of hold back on all this meddling in religion and trying to … They point to Christian missionaries, you are causing too much trouble. They become much more aloof and distant.

They become much more convinced in a way of their self received right to rule India. It is seen as a duty and we have to do it, and only we can do it. That’s how the British think up until the 1940s.

Ed Leon: Right. We are talking with Hayden Bellenoit. He is a brand new professor here at The Great Courses. He is from the US Naval Academy, and we are talking about a course that he is currently here producing called A History of British India.  Hayden, would you say that Britain’s most important colony was India? Was India the crown jewel of all the colonies?

Hayden Bellenoit: I would say before 1776 yes … Sorry, after 1776, yeah. It was called the Jewel in the crown for a number of reasons. One was economic. The material, the man power, the outlet it was for British textiles and industry. You cannot dispute that. There is also the question of prestige. The British were very proud they ruled India, because they saw themselves as the heirs to the Mughals, and all these great conquerors of India.

I think maybe it was Queen Victoria, or one of her statesmen said at one point, “Ruling India makes us a first rate power, but without it we are just another European country.”

Ed Leon: How long was the Raj in place?

Hayden Bellenoit: From 1858 to 1947.

Ed Leon: At what point did Indian nationalism start to rise and become a force?

Hayden Bellenoit: That’s a whole course right there. Indian nationalism goes through few phases. The first is sort of the late 19th, early 20th century. It’s just this very polite, kind of gentlemanly critique of British economic policy. What they called a drain of wealth theory. The colonial connection was not really giving anything back to India, was draining wealth out.

They called it a parasite some of them. That’s how I teach it to my students. But this is still very … It doesn’t call, this first phase doesn’t quite yet call for independence. It just wants a greater share of Indian say in government and how the government spends its money because the British spent probably about a third of their budget on the army as apposed to education, health, poverty, and famine relief.

The second phase starts to emerge in the early 20th century in Bengal, after 1905 with something called the Swadeshi movement, which really challenges British authority in this high handed autocracy. But the real spark comes after 1919 with this massacre in the Punjab in the city called Amritzsar. Where the British fire on the peaceful, theoretically illegal, but unquestionably peaceful demonstration. That’s when Gandhi comes onto the scene.

Revered the world over for his nonviolent philosophy of passive resistance, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was known to his many followers as Mahatma, or “the great-souled one.”

Ed Leon: Sure. Let’s talk about Gandhi, transformative figure in the history of India. Where did his involvement begin? How did his movement progress?

Hayden Bellenoit: Yeah, Gandhi is really interesting because before 1919 he spent most of his time outside of India. He had lived in South Africa, he had spent time in London. He was a trained barrister for example, which is why in a way he was so cunning when it came to defending. He could defend himself in legal proceedings.

Gandhi, he starts to experiment with these more well known techniques of a-himsa, non violence, and satyagraha, or truth force, in South Africa. Against basically South African colonial legislation that says non-Europeans have to carry identification papers, but Europeans don’t. Again, that gets back to the racism thing. I’m really starting to appreciate this more.

Gandhi returns to India in 1915 and he goes to see the countryside, which is really India. That’s where most people live. He is struck by the poverty. Which itself was to a degree a large result of colonial rule. He finds during the first world war, with a wartime economy, and inflation, and all the pressures, he is in the right place at the right time. When this massacre in 1919 takes place, it’s like throwing a spark on a kerosene soaked pile of rags.

He is there to kind of steward it and kind of reorient the congress party, which previously was very elite and English educated. They become a mass party that tries to engage the populist masses.

Ed Leon: Talk about that a little bit. It’s such a populist movement that develops out of it, it’s mass populism in a way that, I guess, the British had never faced before.

Hayden Bellenoit: They faced shades of it in Bengal after 1905, but that was very regional focused. But the amazing thing about Gandhi and congresses campaigns after 1919 is that they were all India wide. Bombay, Madras, Delhi, North India. It was all over an it involved basically mobilizing the masses.

Even if the masses didn’t really care about independence right away, they had grievances. The congress is able, Gandhi and the congress are able to tap into these grievances and tack them onto the movement. They practice the techniques at an India wide level of non cooperation. Indians who were employed by the Indian government don’t show up for work. They boycott schools, they boycott foreign goods for example.

It’s the boycotting in particular of liquor in some parts of India that really costs the British government. In Madras, in southern India, liquor, their fiscal revenue goes down a quarter because of these campaigns. They got a lot of money form liquor taxes. Gandhi is able to kind of successfully channel all these various groups who have different reasons for being angry, and present it to the British and the world as one reason. We are angry with the way you are running our country. Give us not just more of a say, but give us some freedom.

Ed Leon: Right. You briefly mentioned the world war. The two world wars were critical according to your course, were critical moments in exposing the British connection to India. Talk a little bit about that.

Hayden Bellenoit: Sure, the first world war in particular. Because what India was able to offer the British. I tell my students often very bluntly, Britain may not have won the first world war without India. Because it offered two and a half million troops to the war effort.

As historians, we have estimated roughly about 100 million pound sterling for funding of the war bill. The strategic location of India, because they could get to the middle east very quickly, to the Ottoman empire, German colonies in southern Africa and southeast Asia. But it really affects India because the Raj goes into a wartime budget. It spends a lot of money and when you have government spending like that, inflation goes up. Inflation always hits the poor who are already feeling the heel of inflexible and high tax demands.

The first world war really hits India, which is strange because at many points in India, Indians are very loyal to the war at first. Generally the congress party is loyal to it because they think they’ll get concessions after the war is done for the British, but then they are terrible mistaken.

Ed Leon: Is it surprising to you that the Indian people put up with the Raj and British colonization for so long?

Hayden Bellenoit: I think to outside observers it’s surprising, but if you put yourself in the Indian perspective, it kind of makes a lot of sense.

Ed Leon: Do that for me.

Hayden Bellenoit: Sure, if you are in the Indian perspective and you are, say, under the company. They company never makes any overt political aims. It never says, “We are going to depose the Mughal emperor and take over.” They just do it very surreptitiously. For the first three generations of British rule, the company uses a lot of the symbolism and vestiges of Mughal rule, which Indians whether they were Hindu or Muslim, they all understood. That language of government and authority. It never really caught them.

Image of a Temple on the water in IndiaThe British are very good, the company is very good at playing Indians off of each other. It’s only later when Gandhi and the congress say, “Hey, we are being duped here. Come on, we are one. We are one nation.” That’s something the company doesn’t have to worry about all that much.

Ed Leon: Yeah, because the company was gone by then. We’ve covered 250 years in 20 minutes. Take me all the way to 1947 and the independence of India. Talk about how it came about, how it was partitioned.

Hayden Bellenoit: Well 1947, what I’ve learned is that even though at the time the British patted themselves on the back, it actually ended up being quite a disaster in a way. Not because I romantically believe that India could have remained one. I think because of the way that the British leave.

At the end of World War II, there was a lot of strain again on the Indian economy and sort of resources because of the war effort. The British in 1945 have no intent on leaving, that they have one the war. Churchill is sort of the most ardent imperialist. But what you find though is a combination of factors.

For example, there is a lot of American pressure that Washington exerts on the British to say, “Listen, you have to solve the India question.” Solve can mean many things, but to most people that meant let go of India. The British in 1945 and 1946 found smaller mutinies within their navy and army in India. That was the last guarantor of British rule. If the army fell, it was all over.

What happened is that the British decided and announced that, okay, we are thinking of leaving. This sets all these things into motion. But beneath the constitutional surface, there had been over probably about a generation of simmering communal conflict between Hindus and Muslims. It’s really all politics. It’s not religion, religion just gets employed in this way.

It looks like things are uncertain. You have the Indian Muslim League, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah , the congress party led by Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.

Image of Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru was the first Prime Minister of India and a central figure in Indian politics before and after independence.

They are kind of jockeying and trying to figure out, what’s this future state going to look like. It becomes clear that the British are going to leave, but the question of what it’s going to look like is the more important thing.

The British initially want to leave a united India. Then you get into really specific, gritty, religious provincial politics. The Indian Muslim League led by Jinnah are afraid of a highly centralized, independent Indian state. Because when you look at demographics, Hindus would be the super, I call it uber, majority. When you control a country like that, you can do what you want.

Ed Leon: Sure, with the minorities.

Hayden Bellenoit: But the congress, this is what they want. They see themselves as the rightful inheritors of this whole structure the British had built up. They can never agree on it. The Muslim league and Jinnah want a federated articles of confederation India. A looser federated union. But the congress doesn’t want it because they are kind of actually good students of history. They will look at 18th century India and say, “It didn’t survive. It was picked apart.”

Nehru, we know, was worried that an independent India that was decentralized would be picked apart by either Russia or the United States to some degree. What the British do is they send out a last viceroy, Mountbatton, who basically says, “Okay, we are leaving in 1948.” Then as the negotiations proceed, they decide they are going to leave a year early. It throws everything into a flux. The British in a way see it and they say, “Congress cannot agree with the Muslim League, you have religious violence on the ground. Do you know what the best thing to do is? We are just going to partition the country into a largely Muslim Pakistan, and a largely Hindu India.

Ed Leon: Right, which is where we find ourselves today. Today India is the world’s largest democracy. What do you think of the country now, having this perspective you have as a historian and watching the country.

Hayden Bellenoit: In a way I’m not surprised that India is still a large democracy. Because one thing that I became really struck by by studying and teaching India’s history is that it’s always had a really vibrant public sphere. They have always had a traditional of holding rulers to account. Whether they are the British, whether they are Nizams, Maharajas, or their current prime minister. I’m not surprised that it’s done as well as it has actually.

When I meet people in India today, I always remind Indians that I think they should be very proud of their history, because they lead the first really major … What you would call a non-white settler colony movement for independence. After India goes, the rest of the British empire goes. Africa, southeast Asia. I actually have a lot of admiration for Gandhi and Indian nationalism. I’m very appreciative of it.

Ed Leon: Sure. Where are you from?

Hayden Bellenoit: Massachusetts, originally.

Ed Leon: What is it about India that made you want to devote your career to studying it?

Hayden Bellenoit: It was kind of an accident actually. It think the last few years of when I was an undergraduate, I spent my third year abroad in Edinburgh, at Edinburgh University in Scotland. I just became, I was really noted with how much Indian culture and food was a fabric of British society. I got to know some Indians in Edinburgh and Scotland, and I got to talk to them. I was always kind of interested in European imperialism. If you do the British, India is the central … Sorry to my Africanists out there, India is the central part of that.

Then I met someone in Edinburgh who said, “Well if you are interested in doing graduate school, you may want to think of Oxford or Cambridge.” I said, “Really? I never would have thought of that. Yeah, I’m interested in this topic.” I was originally interested in the Indian mutiny and great uprising. They said, “Well send in your dossier and see how it does.”

Then I started thinking more about it. It’s like, this is really interesting because it’s so different than standard western European or American history. The narratives and the changes are all so much more complicated.

Ed Leon: Right, they sure are. Well, thank you for sharing some of them today. Hayden Bellenoit, professor of history at the US Naval Academy. The course he is working on is called A History of British India, and you will see it in February I think of 2017. Wow, we are already looking into the new year. Thanks for joining us today on The Torch.

Hayden Bellenoit: Thanks very much.

Ed Leon: See you guys soon right here on Facebook Live.

From the Lecture Series A History of British India
Taught by Professor Hayden Bellenoit, Ph.D.