Book Review: Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India by Shashi Tharoor

Quote of the book

“One of the worst legacies of colonialism is that its ill effects outlasted the Empire”

5 key points

  • The Indian Rupee used to be one of the strongest currencies in the world before British colonialism.
  • When the British arrived in India, India had 25% of the world’s GDP. When the British left, this fell to 3%.
  • After the British, literacy rates were 17% in India and this grew to 72% in the 70 years since India gained independence.
  • The British colonists employed a ‘divide and rule’ strategy upon Indians, which differentiated people into categories that the colonists decided – notably along religious lines. They made these groups fear each other and ultimately led to the Partition of India in 1947.
  • Viceroy Lord Lytton banned the prices of food from being reduced during famines. There has not been a famine in India since the British left whilst India has had free press and democracy.

Review

Inglorious Empire offers a polemical, historical account of British colonialism in India. Sometimes history books can be heavy and dense to read, but I found that this one was written with language and content that is accessible to a wide audience. Since British colonial history is usually not taught in schools, this book is useful to learn about it and should be required reading for anyone curious about or formally studying British history, South Asian history, or the British Empire.

The book starts with a history of India when the East India Company was formed in the 1600s and goes on to systematically address each argument and point about the Empire. For example, Tharoor points out that the Indian Rupee was one of the strongest currencies in the world. However, once the British arrived, they manipulated the currency in order to benefit British businesses. Its value was reduced to a mere fraction of its original value between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Tharoor extensively covers other different areas Indian history such as unity, democracy, the involvement of Gandhi, the Partition of 1947, the Bengal famine, and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

The book continues recounting Indian history during and after British colonialism, using facts and figures to dispel myths that claim that colonialism was beneficial. For example, Tharoor notes the literacy levels in India during colonialism (17%) and 70 years after Independence (72%). Tharoor aims to understand why India has faced and continues to face difficulties since gaining independence in 1947. He addresses the ‘divide and rule’ policy of the British in India which differentiated and classified communities along religious lines, pitting Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs against each other. This subsequently led to the partition of India into Pakistan and India. As Tharoor says about the resulting divisions that the colonists created, “Divide et impera had worked too well: two Indias is what it would be”.

Tharoor also addresses the topic of famines. He mentions the reason that Florence Nightingale cited as being a major contributor to famines: food was unable to reach areas of need. He then points out that the worst famines in India in fact happened after railways were introduced, which shows that the famines were down to the policies of those ruling and not the lack of transport.

It is particularly interesting that Tharoor directly addresses (and dispels myths for) the case for the British Empire in India, such as providing India with railways, democracy, the English language, and cricket. He argues that these “benefits” were originally intended to harm India. For example, the railways were built to export raw materials from India to manufacturers in the UK before transporting back final produced goods to India at exploitative prices. The railways were not intended to help people move around. Tharoor also mentions that even employment in the railways and the use of the English language was discriminatory against Indians.

This book is very specific to Britain’s relationship with India and it does not comprehensively cover everything to do with the British Raj. It should also be noted that, as with any book about a major historical event, it offers one perspective. This book is factual enough to be taken on its own as an account of British colonial presence in India, but it would be beneficial for the reader to explore other perspectives as well. Having said that, this book is backed up with an abundance of statistics and evidence and it addresses each argument that it makes coherently and comprehensively.

This read is neither comfortable or light-hearted, and at times it can be hard to follow. However, it is even more relevant today whilst the UK navigates its path outside of the EU and addresses its colonial history. It would be of interest to anyone curious about British colonialism, British history, South Asian history, India-UK foreign policy, as well as those wanting to understand present day race relations in both the UK and in India. It is a powerful read which will leave the reader with a lot of thoughts to ponder on the reality of the British Empire and why things are the way they are today in Britain and in India.

This book was born out of a debate in the Oxford Union in 2015, where Tharoor argued that “Britain Owes Reparations to Her Former Colonies”. If you are interested in the topic, the debate (15 minutes long) is well worth the watch here.

Overall rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Get the book | Official website | Goodreads

Published by sharemylibrary

Non-fiction book reviews, summaries, and recommendations

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India by Shashi Tharoor

    1. Thank you for your comment and for reading my review! It’s a very powerful debate which definitely needs to be discussed more.

      Liked by 1 person

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