Book Review: An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India by Shashi Tharoor

By Abhishek Sikhwal


I have been waiting for a book like An Era of Darkness for quite some time. While much has been written about the British empire and the brutality of colonization, none of those accounts came from an Indian perspective. African-Americans have been able to recount the horrors of slavery through books such as Inhuman Bondage and Many Thousands Gone, but Indians have only been served an ersatz history of the empire by apologists such as Niall Ferguson (Empire) and Lawrence James (The Rise and Fall of the British Empire). In reviewing this book, my slight bias, of which I’m forthcoming, arises squarely from the fact that there hasn’t been anything similar that singularly deals with the Indian experience of colonization.

Tharoor’s book, which took shape after his speech on the subject went viral last year, is an extensive examination of the economic and cultural damage wreaked upon India over the 200 years it was under British rule. In order to establish their dominion, the British dismantled the organic structure of the subcontinent which was always, as the historian Jon Wilson noted, “a society of little societies”.

Tharoor rubbishes the argument that the British were better than the native kings they were supplanting by citing the good governance in kingdoms such as Travancore, Mysore and Oudh. Even the Moghuls, who ruled India for over three centuries, assimilated themselves into the region and the capital extracted under their empire never left the country. The British, however, kept themselves aloof from the customs of the indigenous people and systematically siphoned off the country’s wealth to Britain. According to Tharoor, “By the early 1800s, India had been reduced from a land of artisans, traders, warriors and merchants, functioning in thriving and complex commercial networks, into an agrarian society of peasants and moneylenders”.

While some think that the British should be thanked for introducing the railways, press and parliamentary system into India, Tharoor argues that these were only introduced in order to accelerate the purloin of the country’s riches and to maintain control over the land. He also points out how India is still suffering under a system that was framed with Victorian values. Our bureaucracy, corruption and unfortunate laws pertaining to homosexuality and sedition can all be attributed to the archaic system set up by the British. Even the divide-and-rule policy initially used by the British to keep Indians quarrelling amongst themselves, created a gulf between communities that continues till today.

Tharoor is at his eloquent best when deconstructing the malice and connivance of the empire. Particularly harrowing is his account of the many famines that happened under the British and how they saw these avoidable tragedies as a Malthusian necessity. He cuts down any olive branch one may extend towards the British with statistics and reasoning that explain the underlying motives in each of their policies. He maintains an unwavering sneer at the audacity of the empire to have undertaken such skulduggery and then attempted to give it a positive spin. Tharoor’s extensive knowledge of the subject, peppered with historical accounts and contemporary examples, makes for an engaging read because he considers every possible counterpoint to his arguments and addresses them deftly in a manner that is hard to refute.

When living in the UK for over six years, I was appalled by how little my colleagues knew of the ravages of the empire. Their historical amnesia was the rose-tinted version put out by the apologists and by British propaganda. In this narrative, the British Raj did wonders for the Indian subcontinent by “taming the savage” (otherwise known as the White Man’s Burden). It appears that history really is written by the victors. Tharoor’s book does a wonderful job of refuting this and making the case for India’s rich heritage, which was far more advanced than that of the colonizer.

One only wishes that Tharoor had delved deeper into the curious absence of the right wing from the Indian freedom struggle. This could have laid bare their hypocrisy in invoking patriotism while using the same tactics deployed by the British. Sedition was enacted as an offense in 1870 to suppress any criticism of British policies so it’s rather unfortunate that, after a hundred and forty-six years, the same law is being used to arrest anyone criticizing the present government. Tharoor’s book is also important in the current political climate where the contribution of some prominent freedom fighters is being systematically erased from school syllabus. The present government’s drive to erase any version of history that doesn’t align with their wilful retelling is similar to how the British doctored the narrative in their favour while making themselves appear like saviours.

I find it disheartening when I come across Indians who defend the British empire. Calcutta, in particular, has a colonial hangover that shows no signs of getting cured.  You can throw a stone in any direction in the city and yet strike an Anglophile. In this erstwhile seat of the empire, many people carry the misconception that India was much better when the British were running the show. It has always been taxing for someone with the most rudimentary interest in history, such as yours truly, to be witness to the unwarranted celebration of the British as a “force of good”. This misconception was chiefly propagated due to a lack of literature that could chart the true costs of colonization. Tharoor’s book bridges the gap and deserves to be read by both British and Indian audiences; the British can perhaps use it to acknowledge the disgrace of empire while Indians can use it as a reminder of how we shouldn’t be divided and taken advantage of again. After all, as Tharoor states in the book, “history belongs in the past, but understanding it is the duty of the present”.

The reviewer is a writer based in Kolkata.