- The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain
Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The School for Scandal details the fabulous deceptions and witticisms of English high society in the late eighteenth century, a time of unprecedented scandal during the growth of capitalism. Sheridan was a close friend of Nathaniel Halhed, orientalist par excellence, and a contemporary of Warren Hastings and Edmund Burke, the main actors in Nicholas B. Dirks’s The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain. Dirks frames his book in dramaturgical terms befitting the time period, such as the epic roles of Burke and Hastings and the twists and turns in the performances of those justifying empire. At times, he mentions Sheridan, the dandy of late-eighteenth-century British theater, as a part of his vast drama of Scandal. Sheridan’s play, written and first produced in the late 1770s, illustrates Dirks’s contention that scandal thematically encapsulated the time period. Sheridan’s characters show an England full of unscrupulous businessmen, suitors, playboys, moneylenders, and questionable women reflecting [End Page 565] on itself. Some of these Englishmen returned from the outskirts of lands the British had explored, such as Australia, and some were rumored to be making fortunes in India. Most critics of The School for Scandal have focused on comedy and witticism, not the mention of these faraway lands, just as most historians of eighteenth-century England, Dirks claims, hardly mention how important empire was to England. Dirks claims that contrary to the orthodox perspective that eighteenth-century Britons were relatively untouched by empire, the politics behind empire actually shaped England. According to Dirks, scandal is the link connecting these two entities, and the transfer of scandal from corruption of Britons to the religious and cultural practices of Indians is how best to understand “the creation of imperial Britain.”
In nine thematic sections, starting with scandal and ending with empire, Dirks narrates a journey from the mid-eighteenth century’s world of scandals and argues that somehow the scandal of empire was erased from British sensibility, via a reading of Burke’s attacks on Hastings, by the early nineteenth century. This erasure was not at all coincidental, since for Dirks it was actually required for empire to ideologically sustain itself. The author takes readers on a journey through his perspective on corruption, spectacle, economy, sovereignty, state, history, and tradition before ending with empire.
Dirks links all these sections together by arguing that after the scandal of Hastings, on trial for impeachment, castigated by Burke for moral impropriety and all sorts of other problems, scandal was lifted off the shoulders of Britons in India and then gradually grafted onto Indians and their lives and practices. Furthermore, the displacement of scandal explains modern life as we know it, as the management and veiling of it is required, Dirks argues, for the modern state to function. Dirks adds more to the commonplace notion that “it was . . . the subjugation of India that allowed Britain to emerge as the most powerful and modern nation-state of the new nineteenth-century world order” (238). He explains this postcolonial truism by discussing some specific historical processes that enabled this to happen. The agency behind this process falls squarely on the shoulders of Burke and his condemnation of Hastings. In a point that is repeated many times throughout the book, Dirks claims that Burke’s critiques of Hastings’s personal improprieties and lavish personal indulgences, as opposed to any critique of empire, allowed British imperial activities to continue unfettered: “He had made possible the apotheosis of British imperial sovereignty in India, when the veil was finally drawn securely over the origins of empire there” (193), and furthermore, “in bringing Hastings to scrutiny before the combined houses of Parliament, Burke had made empire safe for British sovereignty” (207). So after Burke, empire was “naturalized,” and British individuals and institutions all colluded to forget about any personal scandals or corruptions and placed all their attention on Indians...