Since 9/11 business has been good for imperial historians. American exploits in the Middle East have made the history of recent European empires—and the British in particular—urgent, relevant, and popular. They have also sharpened the subject’s political edge, by encouraging us to draw “lessons” for the present. For many historians, those lessons are cautionary to say the least. With the notable exception of Niall Ferguson (whose prominence owes something to the fact that he is an exception), American and British historians of empire appear to be overwhelmingly critical of today’s neo-imperialism. Academics’ challenges to current policies crop up in conference panels, book reviews, and blogs, in the pages of academic journals, left-leaning magazines and broadsheets.
Yet while historians seem broadly united in condemning the imperial present, discussions of the imperial past appear to be increasingly polarized. The history of the British Empire has, for some, become a battleground. On one side are ranged the advocates of a history that investigates the complexities of power and cultural relations, stresses diversity and lived experience, and is less concerned with debating whether the British Empire was good or bad than with probing how it worked. On the other side are those who emphasize the intrinsic and persistent oppression of the colonized by colonizers: the violence, hypocrisy, corruption, appropriation, racism—or, in Nicholas Dirks’s phrase, the scandal—of empire.
Dirks’s The Scandal of Empire sits squarely in this second camp, exploring the scandals of early British rule in India as a means of exposing “the scandal of empire itself.” (25) These forms of scandal, he contends, were intimately related: the corrupt practices of the East India Company were overwritten by a rhetoric that legitimized British rule, and transferred the taint of scandal onto colonized subjects instead. Dirks looks in detail at the cases of Robert Clive, whose Indian career and fortune were the focus of a Parliamentary inquiry, and Warren Hastings, target of a notorious impeachment trial spear-headed for nearly a decade by Edmund Burke. He neatly demonstrates how these trials, and the limited reforms they inspired, served as a sort of conscience-cleansing device for anxious Britons. By the early nineteenth century, thanks in part to new historical accounts, “the embarrassment of empire gave way to its naturalization and celebration. . . .” (283) Clive and Hastings had become imperial heroes. British officials no longer appeared to perpetrate scandal; instead they worked to eradicate scandalous “traditional” Indian practices such as sati and thagi.
The Scandal of Empire makes an important contribution to the burgeoning scholarship dedicated to setting Britain and its empire in the same frame. Dirks acutely identifies and analyzes a fundamental transition in British imperial self-perceptions. From the 1760s to the 1830s, the Company empire was transformed from an enterprise that many Britons saw as morally questionable, into the exact reverse: a morally-inspired civilizing mission. In the process, the “scandalous” origins of empire became elided into a narrative of empire that justified British sovereignty and economic domination. Nor is it an accident, Dirks correctly suggests, that this rebranding of empire occurred in tandem with British state centralization, industrialization, and the consolidation of British nationalism.
This is an immensely compelling argument. One cannot help feeling, however, that Dirks undercuts his case by a sometimes careless and misleading presentation. (One factual slip is worth noting: it was the aggressively Francophobic expansionist Richard Wellesley—not his younger brother Arthur, later Duke of Wellington—who became India’s governor-general in 1798. (22, 125)) Consider the book’s central concept. “Scandal” succeeds brilliantly as a double-entendre in the title. But the term appears in so many different contexts throughout the book that its meaning becomes perplexingly vague. The “spectacular scandal” of the Hastings trial (85) “not only put paid to the scandals of empire; it also raised empire above the possibility of scandal.” (125) British historians deployed scandal “to call sovereignty into question” (257); liberal reformers made “sati. . . the central scandal of empire.” (305) “Empire was always a...