This is the thirteenth book in the ‘Worlds of the East India Company’ series, and is a welcome addition to recent scholarship on the East India Company state. Not surprisingly, and like so many monographs, it began life as a doctoral dissertation; more surprising, however, is that it was written more than half a century ago—it was submitted for an Oxford D.Phil. in 1962. Fortunately, and to the great credit of both Amita Das (who produced the original dissertation as a student of Cuthbert Collin Davies, Reader in Indian History at Oxford) and her son Aditya (a chemical engineer by training), it has stood the passage of time remarkably well. The writing is crisp, the analysis is judicious and it is based on a very extensive and thoughtful mining of official correspondence and the private papers of Gilbert Elliot, Baron Minto and then first earl of Minto, from the National Library of Scotland. More surprising, however, is that, historiographically, it does not feel that dated. Aditya Das has ensured that the text has been refreshed and has incorporated more recent scholarship on the international and diplomatic history of the period. Moreover, it addresses a rather noticeable scholarly gap in the literature on the expansion and consolidation of colonial rule in India. Minto’s predecessors, from Clive through to Wellesley, have all been scrutinised closely, as have most of his successors. Minto, who served as governor general of India during the peak years of the Napoleonic Wars, has curiously been largely overlooked. The stress here is on the French threat to India, a threat which Das takes very seriously, and which she shows was taken just as seriously by Minto. Appointed to India in 1807, just when Napoleon had defeated Prussia and struck a peace deal with Russia, Minto dedicated himself to thwarting what he deemed to be a credible French threat to British interests in the Indian Ocean. He championed a forward strategy which sought to counter any overland threat by creating alliances with Central Asian powers, contain attacks on British shipping by depriving the French of their bases in Réunion and Île de France (Mauritius), and deepen the commercial penetration of South-east Asia and secure the vital trading links to China by seizing Java from France’s Dutch ally. It was during these years that Britain, through the East India Company, was drawn more deeply into the tangled thickets of Central Asia, dispatching embassies and seeking defensive treaties with the courts of Lahore, Kabul, Persia and Sindh. Minto envisioned British India buttressed by a ring of buffer states, and the politico-military officials who were clustered around Wellesley and had helped shape his forward policy found favour with Minto. Charles Metcalfe was sent to the court of Ranjit Singh in Lahore, John Malcolm was ordered to Persia and Mountstuart Elphinstone led the first British embassy to Kabul. As a close ally and associate of Edmund Burke, and one who was active in the attempted impeachment of Warren Hastings, Minto may have been an early proponent of trusteeship, but his foreign policy revealed his indebtedness to Wellesley and the school of realpolitik. Das argues that Minto was not nearly as bellicose as John Malcolm—whom she compares very unfavourably with Harford Jones, the envoy dispatched by the British government to the Persian court. But Minto’s enthusiastic support for the invasion and seizure of Java, his hopes that the British would retain Java after any post-war treaty and perhaps most importantly his surprising and unprecedented decision that, as governor general, he would accompany the invading force does suggest that the difference might only be a matter of degree, rather than of doctrine. Minto’s decision to join the invasion of Java remains one of the more curious features of his administration. I cannot think of any governor general, who was not simultaneously the commander-in-chief, absenting himself from India for an extended period (seven months in this case) out of a wish to accompany a force deployed overseas. Curzon, arguably one of the most imperious of imperial proconsuls, questioned its wisdom. Das dwells less on this curious decision by Minto and focuses instead on uncovering the logic behind the invasion. Her argument, that the capture of Java marked the capstone of Minto’s plans both to drive out the French from the Indian Ocean and deepen British commercial and political influences is very persuasive. It also helps us to appreciate better the interplay between the foreign policies of Great Britain and the East India Company, and the often ambivalent positions in which a governor general could find himself. Ostensibly appointed by the Company, governors general were typically beholden to the British government for their career paths to date, as well as their future after India. And like Minto, many also tended to frame Indian questions within a wider imperial framework. Navigating between the Company and the Crown was never easy, and in this book we are shown in great detail and with great clarity how Minto managed to do so, and with what consequences. The defence of India, for Minto, was never simply about India. Rather, India was firmly subordinated to Britain’s position with respect to its European rivals. But there were limits. Minto chafed at the governor general in India being a mere appendage to British power. He instead sought opportunities to assert the sovereign authority of the British government in India, thereby anticipating elements of what later could be termed proconsular imperialism, and which is more commonly associated with Lytton, Curzon and Mountbatten. © Oxford University Press 2018. All rights reserved. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Apr 18, 2018
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