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Rosie Llewellyn-Jones: “I don’t condemn the past; I try to put it in context”

BySyed Saad Ahmed
Nov 18, 2023 05:08 AM IST

The author of ‘Empire Building: The Construction of British India, 1690–1860; on retro-liberalism, being objective about the East India Company, and how British empire building was different in India

What aspect of early British construction in India did you find most remarkable?

Historian Rosie Llewellyn-Jones (Courtesy the publisher)

I found it interesting that so little had been written about it. There are books about architecture and various aspects of the East India Company, but not on the physical impact the Company had on India. There was nothing on engineering as such — the only book I could find was published almost 100 years ago on military engineering. I subsequently found that all the engineers before 1860 were military engineers, who built a wide range of buildings, not just bridges and other such structures. It seemed there was a gap in the market, which I hope I have filled or at least, made a start at filling.

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You limit your survey to 1860. While there was a watershed political shift with the revolt of 1857, would you say there was a similar change in building practices after 1860?

Yes. I deliberately didn’t stop at 1857, as so many people do. By 1860, most of the mechanisms that were going to last till India’s Independence in 1947 were in place. You have the beginning of the Indian Forest Service and the Indian Medical Service. The military board was dissolved and civil engineering began.

I find the earlier period much more interesting. The British, coming in, had little idea of what surrounded them, but they were curious and they experimented. It all became a lot duller after 1860, with the heavy hand of Victorian Britain and the British Empire bearing upon India. The latter period is not as innovative or interesting for me; it might be for others.

256pp, ₹530; Penguin

How much did you travel to research for the book and what insights did you glean from it? Or was it mostly archival research?

I first went to India in the early 1960s, so I’ve known the country for well over half a century. I have travelled a lot and led tours along the Hooghly and around Kolkata. I’ve spent time in Murshidabad and Berhampore and written about them. So, I had ample visual information and memories before I started researching. The archival research backed up what I’d already seen and experienced.

The tours sound interesting. Could you talk more about them?

Yes, I quite enjoyed them. I did several trips for Martin Randall [specialist in cultural tours], one for the Royal Society of Asian Affairs, where I was working, and one for Indus Experiences. I was taking groups of foreigners, mainly Britons and some Australians. We started in Calcutta, spent a week there, and then went upriver on the Assam Bengal Navigation company’s boats. They are very good indeed. People would have their meals onboard, so they weren’t worried about eating food at dubious places. The boat was moored at night and we would sleep on it. We would step out in the morning to look at European settlements along the banks of the Hooghly, such as Serampore, Chandernagore and Chinsurah. For the first time, I realised how important these European enclaves were and then, I became interested in how the British managed to set up the most successful one at Calcutta. It was fascinating! We went up as far as the Farakka Barrage and also to Gaur, the ancient capital of Bengal.

You write that we should guard against “imposing the sensibilities of today on the behaviour of the past… nor should we condemn today what they [East India Company] considered perfectly normal.” Considering the past has immense contemporary resonance and relevance, could you talk more about this?

I’m against what I term retro-liberalism, which tries to imply today’s values on what happened in the past. You can’t be a historian until you take an objective view. I’m certainly not going to excuse many things the East India Company did. After all, they were in it to trade and make a profit. In doing that, you cut corners and neglect some of the people you work with. I wouldn’t say they were deliberately cruel. It’s certainly not like the Belgians in the Belgian Congo — that’s at a completely different level.

You have to put things in context. Things have changed so much in just the past 50 years. If you talk to your grandparents, you’ll realise how different their values were from what yours are today. I don’t condemn the past; I try to explain it and put it in context. I’m not one of those people like Shashi Tharoor.

As individuals, we all have our biases. How do you maintain objectivity as a historian?

That’s a good point. I try my best. I look at archival sources. I wouldn’t publish anything I haven’t verified from a couple of sources. I’m not one of those people who go off on a tangent. I go back to what people wrote at the time. You can obviously interpret, but you have to take their word. That’s where a good historian starts — look at what people are saying at the time.

You mentioned Shashi Tharoor. You have written how recent works on the East India Company are overly critical and have “moved away from history as narrative to something rather less objective”. Would you say your book is a response to this criticism?

I hope it is, though it didn’t set out to be so. I started researching it a long time ago, about 2005, and then, I got distracted. I published other books and this was on the back burner. But that was useful because it allowed me to see how recent books on the Company are swinging in a different direction. William Dalrymple is another one. There are a lot of books and nobody can say anything good about the Company at the moment. This might change. And I’m careful to say that while the Company got many things wrong, it also got a number of things right. We should give them their due for that.

How was empire building in India different from other British colonies or that of other colonial powers in India?

I thought about this and don’t really have the answer. In India, Britons were not encouraged to settle down and make it their home. They were there primarily to make as much money as they could before returning to England. A lot of them didn’t — that’s why Indian cemeteries are full of Britons who died at an early age. It wasn’t like Australia or Canada, where they went to settle, make their home, and raise families. But that doesn’t explain the grand buildings and the infrastructure the Company made. Who was it for?

While you explore British construction across India, there is a significant focus on Bengal. Is that because Calcutta was the capital or because most of the significant construction was centred there?

Though the Company started in Surat, its first place of landing. I decided to concentrate on Calcutta and Bengal because I wanted to show that the Company did not go in and conquer, as many people think. They didn’t seize Calcutta, which was by no means a series of villages — it was a fairly thriving port. They established themselves legitimately by hiring land from the people who owned it and gradually increasing their landholdings. The idea was the more land you have, the more revenue you can collect. You attract people into the city, charge them customs duties and taxes, and so on. I found that interesting, though not many might appreciate it. The Battle of Plassey, for example, was quite isolated from the development of Calcutta. And while the British were establishing and growing Calcutta, they were conscious of who their masters were, which is why they negotiated with the Governor of Bengal. It certainly wasn’t a quick land grab.

I’m also very fond of the city; I like it very much indeed. Also, I know Bengal fairly well, so it made sense to write about what I know.

What did you find the most interesting among the buildings or construction you’ve covered in your book?

It may sound odd, but the electric telegraph interests me immensely. It was set up alongside the railway. The idea was simple. If you have a single-track railway, you need to make sure two trains on the same track don’t converge and crash.

What I found intriguing was a proposal to set up a telegraph system 15 years before it was really exploited in India. There was an experiment in Calcutta’s Botanic Garden (by William O’Shaughnessy, a medical doctor, in 1839) with tall bamboo poles and wires running between them for a distance of about 22 miles. It involved sending through the wire electric currents that represented letters and numbers. Engineers were involved too. It’s a little work, if you like — not as exciting as, say, the Raj Bhavan in Calcutta. Quirky, perhaps, but I like these byways of history.

Syed Saad Ahmed is a writer and communications professional.

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