- The Cult of Imperial Honor in British India
In recent years, there has been a flood of scholarship on the British Empire, much of it concentrating on British imperialism in India. Within the scholarship there is a debate over the question of how the British maintained their dominance over India, especially from the Victorian period until the Second World War. While some scholars, like Nicholas Dirks in The Scandal of Empire (2006), emphasize the oppressive, corrupt, and violent nature of British imperialism, others argue that a more useful way to understand British hegemony is to explore the multifaceted nature of power between colonizer and colonized by highlighting the fluidity in social relations and the multiplicity of imperial identities. In The Cult of Imperial Honor in British India, Steven Patterson contributes to this debate by looking closely at how the British in India, especially after 1857, imagined their role as rulers and how this shaped their actions during the period of the British Raj in India. At the heart of his argument is a gendered analysis of the importance of notions of masculinity and male codes of honor to sustaining British rule.
In 1857, Indian soldiers in the British Indian Army mutinied. The uprising was the culmination of growing Indian resentment over British social and economic policies, and it seriously threatened British rule in India. In 1859, British Crown rule was established in India ending centuries of control by the East India Company. It is within this historical context that Patterson argues that following 1858 there was a shift in the way the British administered and understood their role in India, away from policies that emphasized and encouraged the direct imposition of power to polices shaped by the belief that the British had a duty and responsibility to govern India with honor. According to Patterson, it was this concept of honor that helped to sustain British rule in India in the face of rising Indian nationalism until the Second World War. A belief that their rule was honorable justified imperial conquest and allowed the British to believe in the mission of empire. More importantly according to Patterson it developed a public face of prestige that was continually reinforced by the practice and rhetoric of a moral virtuous rule. As Patterson points out, by the twentieth century the legitimacy of British rule in India was increasingly seen as a corrupt hegemony by Indians, but the belief that their rule was honorable endured for the British until the end of the Raj.
Patterson analyzes an array of sources including novels and conduct guides to demonstrate how the concept of honor was derived from [End Page 401] social practices and cultural expectations. Many of these sources were published specifically for the British in India, and Patterson highlights the didactic intent of the authors whose work portrayed qualities such as courage, integrity, duty, a sense of fair play, and a feeling of selfworth as integral to the honor of British men. It was in the last half of the nineteenth century that honor was inculcated into boys in British public schools, transferring aristocratic values to the growing middle class. The classical education in British schools, especially the example of Rome, helped to legitimize honorable rule and also served as a warning of how to avoid undermining the empire. Competitive civil service exams for the colonial service reinforced these values further. As the author convincingly demonstrates, honor was a malleable concept, but it worked like a code that the British had no difficulty reading. With a few exceptions, Indians were not seen to be honorable because they could not achieve the status of gentlemen. Patterson argues that, because honor was malleable, it could even be used to justify force as in the case of Amritsar, where violence was seen as a duty because it was a response to violence against a white woman.
While British colonial rule in India tried to separate the lives of the ruler and the ruled, in practice it was difficult to disentangle people’s lives with...