On the Construction of a British Empire, Far Away from Home

Hans Schenk

The British possessions on the South Asian sub-continent were gradually built, brick by brick, stone by stone. This often laborious work has been narrated and put in a wider societal context by Rosie Llewellyn-Jones, with care and in much detail, for the period between 1690 and 1860. Her book on Empire Building deals with the literal foundation and further construction of British India, formally inaugurated in 1858. In that year the British Crown became the heir of the properties of the erstwhile company of sailors, merchants, adventurers, soldiers, engineers, administrators, and many others, brought together under the umbrella of the London-based Board of Directors of the East India Company (EIC). These persons, sometimes with support from the side of rulers and others on the sub-continent fill the chapters of the book. The chapters frame moreover the steps from a first modest and fortified merchant godown in Bengal to a mighty conglomerate of settlements run by the EIC from its majestic Calcutta headquarters. 


After an introduction, Rosie Llewellyn-Jones structures her book in five chapters. Each chapter deals with a characteristic aspect of the activities by and pertaining to the EIC, while there is at the same time a loose chronology. The first chapter begins in her narrative with the foundation of a somewhat defensible EIC settlement during the 17th and the 18th centuries[i] on the left bank of the Hooghly river in Bengal: Calcutta, protected by extensive swamps and the river itself. The company took advantage of the implosion of the erstwhile almighty Moghul Empire and developed gradually territorial sovereignty over ever growing parts of the sub-continent, outwards from Calcutta and to a lesser extent outwards from other company core-settlements: Madras and Bombay. The company thus expanded its basis for collecting land revenue, trade, and trade-related taxes; its raison d’être. Expansions of these settlements were subsequently at stake, increasingly given form by buildings for other purposes than defence and trade: administration, churches, hospitals, schools, private mansions, and more. Many local rulers made deals with the EIC and got involved in the building, expansion and beautification of these settlements, notably Calcutta in Bengal, at the time the richest region of South Asia.[ii]

The second chapter deals with those men and women who actually did the construction work, and the men (women are indeed not mentioned) who organized the construction of the involved buildings: engineers, often self-styled. A first formal training-institute for this type of work started in 1783, while gradually local craftsmen were instructed in the unfamiliar ways of building. These two chapters focus on the economic, military, and political base for the profitable functioning of the EIC. The third chapter gives attention to – so to say – superstructural tendencies in the parachuted British mini-societies in unknown surroundings. The spirit of the 18th century Enlightenment brought curious Europeans to South Asia. In 1783 the Asiatic Society was funded, embodying the “sense of wonder and enquiry” in that century (p. 207). It became a focal point for explorations and subsequently for “collecting, enumerating and cataloguing the natural world and its inhabitants’ (p. 100). Skies, trigonometrical measuring of land, botany, languages, and education got attention from the 162 members of the society (among others) in Calcutta around 1800.[iii] But the underlying rationale for the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge was in the end its practical and profitable application for the company. Plants were identified and promoted for commercial use, such as tobacco, coffee, tea, sugar cane and opium; the nation-wide endeavour for a trigonometrical coverage of the British possessions enabled surveys of land for revenue collection. Educational institutes, sponsored by  Europeans and rich Indians were established, even though the company was reluctant to teach local boys (and girls?) the techniques of surveying for revenue purposes as Indian surveyors were supposed to be vulnerable to bribery. Education went also the other way round. Thus, writes the author dryly: “Normally monolingual Britons realised it was to their advantage to learn Persian rather than relying on interpreters… or shouting loudly in English” (p. 3).   

In a fourth chapter, the author describes how, from the 19th century onwards, physical connections were constructed between the settlements and the larger areas under their control, and with South Asia at large, under the apt title “Joining the Parts Together.” The telegraph (and its wires and poles) came forward as well as roads and railroads, which to some extent replaced water transport. However, land had to be expropriated for such purposes, involving fresh land surveying and attempted lower compensations for expropriated land since the railways should bring new benefits for those living nearby.[iv] The new railways were initially just meant to connect coal and iron mines with the new steam driven machines in urban factories. But unforeseen was the eagerness with which Indians used these railways as well. This demonstrated, according to the author, the “complete lack of understanding on the part of the British of the Indian ambition to move forward,” metaphorically and literally (p. 150). 

The fifth chapter is on a sort of coming home for the British population of South Asia. At some distance from existing settlements were permanent military stations erected from the late 18th century onwards: cantonments. They housed both British and Indian soldiers[v] in large army quarters with bungalows for officers, parade grounds, cemeteries, and, increasingly over time, facilities for the soldiers and (later) their families and others. It sounded ideal, writes the author, and she quotes a description of a cantonment near Lucknow in the North of the sub-continent: “A bandstand was set up in a large garden where Europeans could enjoy an evening walk after the heat of the day had diminished. Later, British Residents[vi] had their own ‘country house’ in the cantonment and the last chaplain found he could grow strawberries in the garden surrounding his bungalow.” (p. 172) 

In short: “the recognisable pattern of an anglicised town was beginning to emerge” (p. 193). And, of course, the cantonments formed a way out from the cramp, infectious disease-prone urban areas. A small next step was the establishment of cantonments in the foothills of the Himalayas (or wherever higher altitudes were available) to beat the summer heat. The most famous became Shimla, the summer capital of British India, but there were many hill stations where the British created a “facsimile of Home, 5,000 miles away from the real thing” (p. 183).[vii]  


Some remarks

Rosie Llewellyn-Jones presents an impressive narrative of the link between political and economic activities of the EIC and the colonial built environment. She combines very smoothly the warp of the main historic developments with the woof of petite-histoire, sidelines, anecdotes, and the like. She is far from shy to give stiff upper lip-type ironic remarks. She is moreover not hesitant in commenting in a positive or negative way on what she has observed during her research. In a summary in her final concluding chapter, she chooses to sit, however, on the fence and to summarize the activities by and on behalf of the EIC, by concluding that the company “often got things wrong; but it got some things right too” (p. 207). Indeed, she mentions some failures, such as the attempt to start silk raising, while she praises notable infrastructural endeavours, for example surveying techniques, telegraphs, and last but not least, railways. She also depicts the company as initially being run by adventurous merchants (with the sword) showing interest in, and having some respect for, the local population, but gradually turning into a risk-avoiding body, whose members lost interest in the land and saw Indians increasingly with mistrust: “…as characters in an antique land, unchanging and unwilling to change.” (p. 207). This is a grave error, according to Rosie Llewellyn-Jones. In contrast, she mentions the favourable reactions on the British construction activities by local observers, based on four books by Indians between 1772 and 1838. The respective authors show a positive response to Calcutta’s company buildings and infrastructure. She does not put the question whether the rank and file of the (mainly rural) population was impressed as well by majestic company and private buildings, broad avenues, and all that. 

Neither does she discuss the recent wave of more general books on colonial India. She warns for the tendencies of retro-liberalism, imposing current moral codes on past behaviour. Then: did the EIC do nothing seriously wrong through the eyes of the past? It sought profits, to build majestic palaces and offices, and to send a lot of money home. But Llewellyn-Jones does not give much attention to the question of where the money needed for the mighty buildings and infrastructural works came from. Neither does she mention the origins of even more money to build even more impressive buildings: money earned by the devastating opium trade with China, that rapidly expanded from about 1800 onwards. Her warning not to engage in retro-liberalism and judgement of this trade by present-day moral standards, does not seem valid. Did, e.g., not the famous statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke criticize this trade on moral grounds already in the late 18th century?  


[i] This is an understatement. The author describes the  construction of the first Fort William in Calcutta in 1693, as a simple mud wall around the trading post, a “ramped-up wall of compacted earth, topped with tiles to stop it washing away during the monsoon.” (p. 34).

[ii] The architecture-historian Preeti Chopra uses even the phrase ‘joint enterprise’ as the title of her book: A Joint Enterprise, Indian Elites and the Making of British Bombay, Minneapolis, 2011

[iii] They were all Europeans; the first Indian member was admitted in 1829.

[iv] The author quotes a concerned notice about these costs from the company’s Court of Directors which stated: “... ‘where ever railways have been introduced, they had added greatly to the value of the land through which they pas not only by offering great facilities for its improvement and cultivation but also by affording an easy and cheap access to market for the produce’ and so compensation should be on ‘much more moderate terms’ than that suggested by the Government of Bengal.” Rosie Llewellyn-Jones adds however that the involved villagers were not impressed by these assumed advantages and finally a ‘full compensation’ was paid. (p. 146). 

[v] Though accommodated in separate quarters. Rosie Llewellyn-Jones quotes Clive, the actual founder of Bengal sovereignty after a battle against an India ruler in 1757, that buildings for the Europeans should be: ‘strong, durable and convenient”, whilst housing for Indian soldiers could be more slight, as: ’these People are enabled to struggle with the inconveniences of the Climate much better than the Europeans’. (pp. 159-160).  

[vi] Residents were the senior representatives (and according to critics: watchdogs) of the British government at the courts of rulers of the semi-independent so-called native states.

[vii] Llewellyn-Jones adds (quoting a letter from a relative of a Bengal governor general) that the servants that were taken to the cool hill stations from the hot plains of Bengal:  “’ were very miserable … and were starved with the cold’” (p. 184)