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November 1997

The essays concerning India are roughly in chronological order, so this one gives a good historical background of nineteenth century India and the development of British raj before the Independence movement was even considered. Primarily seen through British eyes, it tends to concentrate on the Evangelical and Utilitarian movements – the British Colonial experiments of the time. I’m not particularly happy with the style of writing, but it was the first essay I’d written for a while.


What are some of the significant justificatory ideologies for British rule in India?

The historic relationship between Britain and India has been fraught with ambiguity. The justificatory ideologies for British rule were numerous, often contradictory and continually evolving. The difficulty in explaining these phenomena can not be overstated. In order to gain any understanding of this remarkable era, one needs to be very selective in choosing what justifications, and what time period to study. For this essay only British Liberal justifications before 1840 have been considered. Even with this small selection, I am aware of a number of important omissions.

The growth of a group of traders into an Imperial British power was not a pre-planned campaign by the British, nor did either side expect it. As the British tried to work out what they had achieved and, more importantly, what they were to do next, conflicting ideas battled for precedence over guiding the next step forward, often producing unforeseen effects and less than desirable results. Throughout these ideological battles, the British found their initial assumptions of India changing. This not only altered their view of India, but also how they saw themselves, again leading to a modified view of India. These ever-changing opinions continually altered the political, social and historical meanings attached to the imperial relationship and effected both the nature and the justifications of British rule.

There is no need to justify trade with another country of no threat to your own, but trade is quite distinct from rule. So when trade by the group of British merchants, who formed the East India Company in 1599, developed into the ruling body of India, questions were raised calling for an explanation of their actions. India, seen as a land with an abundance of wealth, "the paradise of the earth," (1) was too big a prize to be ignored by profit driven merchants. The Company explained their conquests in terms of producing revenue, which may otherwise have fallen into rival European hands. Britain’s attitude to the Catholic European states was bitterly antagonistic and so, although wary, she supported the Company’s actions, often glorifying their victories in India. The conquest was unplanned and unforeseen, as was the need of justification. In past eras, ‘rights of conquest’ would be sufficient justification to rule. The supremacy of Britain, not only over the conquered Indians, but also over the competing European Catholic trading groups also sufficed. But the growth of Liberalism within Britain meant that the new ideals of freedom and equality could not be encompassed within the harsh reality of colonialism. A new form of justification was needed to explain Britain’s continuing domination of India, one that needed to show why Britain ruled and was supreme. Without such justification, Britain’s right to rule could not be legitimate.

In an attempt to understand India, the British constructed a vision of its history. They considered India’s past as one of Oriental despotism, where a despotic government ruthlessly ruled over the population, only to decline into a period of anarchy before another despotic government rose up and took over. The slow disintegration of the Moghul Empire meant that India was once again sliding into anarchy. The East Indian Company were not interested in rule, but their quest for profit had drawn them into controlling positions of power once held by the Moghul Empire. This rule was believed to be legitimate, for the Company left the political matrix much as they found it. They accepted the revenue previously paid to the Emperor and so, in effect, carried on the cynical despotism of the Indian population. The Company thus stopped India’s slide into anarchy and avoided the potential damage to trade. Despite the Company’s claim of legitimate rule, the British felt uneasy about the nature of that rule. Despotism held connections to Louis XIV in the minds of the British, and was seen as an anathema to Liberalism. The Company’s conquest may have captured the imagination of the British public, but it also produced concern and a wave of sympathy towards the plight of the Indian. In response, meanings and ideas for British rule were forwarded and justifications formed.

The British viewed themselves as a progressive, modern and civilised nation, by far superior to India, which, in comparison, could only be assumed to be a land of backward barbarians. Although this view was enforced by Britain’s proven ability to conquer and rule India, it could not reconcile the belief that the conquest and the methods used were wrong. The idea that Britain’s role within India could change from one of pure dictatorial authority into one of paternal guidance would give new righteous meaning to colonialism. This ambition of civilising the barbarian, as opposed to merely exploiting, was widely accepted as a justifiable reason for Britain’s continual presence within India. The view of colonialism as a mission excused any sense of guilt that the British may have had, or developed, concerning the Company’s exploitative and despotic actions. They could now be seen as regrettable, but unavoidable, steps towards progress.

As a cultural mission, colonialism has been seen as an analogy of childhood (2). In this sense, the relationship between the colonisers and the colonised is comparable to that between the parent and child. India is thus seen as the child and Britain the paternal adult guiding throughout the struggles of childhood and adolescence to maturity and adulthood. In this analogy, the Indian is seen in two ways: Either as a good child, being loyal and willing to learn from the parent who can teach and reform the child through modernisation, Westernization and Christianization; or as a bad child, sinful, savage and ungrateful, in which case the adult needs to repress these tendencies through administration and the rule of law. As children are never purely good or purely bad, a combination of teaching and repression will need to be used in order that the child is able to develop into a civilised adult. The British fully believed that, with their guidance, India would one day be able to share in Britain’s Liberal and political ambitions.

Colonial intentions, no matter how good they appeared, could not justify British rule alone; they needed to be put into practise. Ideologies and theories of colonialism were for the most part formed in Britain, but the practise of colonial rule could only be done by those men stationed within India. These Company servants developed a very different impression of India, particularly its history. The initial assumption of Oriental despotism and its implied absence of law was not the experience of Governor-General Warren Hastings. His studies led him to believe that "India had been in possession of laws which continued unchanged since remotest antiquity." (3) Hastings’ fascination of Indian culture led to disciplined research being conducted on the traditions and customs of the subcontinent. On his initiative, a programme to translate the sacred Sanskrit texts into English was begun. He believed that within their contents would lie the ancient laws, "The country’s ancient constitution" (4) that since antiquity still guided Indian conduct. In the true fashion of the Enlightenment, Hastings believed that the greater understanding of the culture and beliefs of the subcontinent, to be found in Sanskrit, would prove invaluable to successfully govern India. This scholarly approach and the interest in Indian culture continued with the establishment of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (5), who published their studies in the "uniquely, influential journal Asiatik Researches" (6)

Hastings’ revelation of Indian civilisation undermined the view of the conquest being a necessary evil. If India was not a country of savages; there was little substance in the idea of colonialism as a civilising mission. India had a civilisation and traditions, mysterious and very different to European expectations, but still nevertheless present in Indian life. The idea of colonialism, in order to justify itself, adjusted to this new emerging view of India. Britain still held the belief of a despotic history, but added to it the view of traditional India and the village community. The thousands of different villages spread throughout the subcontinent were seen as acting almost like independent, miniature republics with a variety of different political forms and methods of rule. The Company, since the beginning of its conquests, had tried to rule through methods already established, reluctant to incite the population by interference with the status quo. However, the battles for dominance had taken its toll on the Company’s profits and they were forced to turn to the British Government for financial assistance. Parliamentary inquiries followed and a number of controversies led to the impeachment of Hastings and the appointment of Cornwallis as Governor-General. More importantly, as Percival Spear states "the actions of officials in India were to be accountable in England. The Company as an Indian ruler was responsible for the welfare of its Indian subjects." (7)

Cornwallis, in contrast to Hastings, had little appreciation of Indian art and culture or the Indian character, as he showed when he wrote "Every native of India, I verily believe is corrupt." (8) Cornwallis, as an English Whig, believed that minimal government was needed to ensure the security of life and property. He introduced land reforms and the genesis of a progressive British judicial system into India. Cornwallis’ reforms and obvious dislike of Indian culture managed to conform with the Liberal justifications for the British raj. The Company were seen to rule cautiously, slowly introducing British concepts into the subcontinent with the ideal of gradual improvement in mind, but was still able to declare its "scrupulous abstinence from all wanton interference with the institutions, civil or religious, of the natives." (9) The satisfaction of the British concerning their rule however, was not unanimous; there were those who felt the colonial mission to be far too slow.

Two radical movements emerged with ideas of rapid transformation for India and a mutual dislike of how the British raj had so far conducted itself. The Evangelicals and the Utilitarians believed the conquests to be immoral and despite the efforts of men like Hastings, indeed because of them, unjustifiable. These two reformist movements, products of the rising middle-classes in Britain, shared many of the same beliefs and ambitions. Both were highly moralistic in what they expected of society. Each had its own system of morality based upon their own creed: for Evangelists this was to be found in the teachings of the Gospel; whilst for the Utilitarians, the ideas and texts of Jeremy Bentham. In turn these represented a canon of law and the moral standards they demanded, though high, were expected to be met by all. The egalitarian ideal ran through both doctrines. As all people were considered to be essentially the same, the honesty of hard work would be rewarded and the energies of the individual given greater scope under these systems. The two movements were extremely confident, almost self-righteous, of the universality of the doctrines. The systems of morality and laws they promoted were seen as being equally effective and beneficial wheresoever they were applied. No allowances were made for the cultural, political and religious differences between people, for no understanding of such traditions were felt to be needed. While both movements had influence in British society, they were also deemed to be too radical to be incorporated whole-heartedly on a largely conservative public. Instead, they turned their attentions towards India.

The aim of the Evangelical movement was moral improvement. Their impression of India was one of depravity and idolatry in need of moral reformation. The Evangelists felt their cause could be enhanced with the introduction of Christianity into the lives of the millions of potential converts on the subcontinent. Evangelicalism would effectively act as a cleansing agent, destroying existing superstitious belief that belonged to a past era and aiding India’s progression towards modern civility. The Evangelist movement "had influential members in society, such as (William) Wilberforce, the confidant of Pitt, Charles Grant a chairman of the Directors, and his son a cabinet minister." (10) Charles Grant was probably the most outspoken and influential member of the Evangelical movement on matters concerning India. Despite the egalitarian nature of the movement, Grant was never convinced that India would ever be equal to Britain. The spread of Evangelicalism in Britain was "designed to make the lower classes pious and respectful." (11) The spread of missionaries throughout India was expected, by Grant, to have similar effects upon the native population towards their superior colonisers.

If Evangelicals hoped to improve society by reforming morals, the Utilitarians concentrated their efforts into reforming society, which would in turn, improve morality. Jeremy Bentham’s theory of Utilitarianism began to develop in his Fragment on Government (1776) and Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789). Derived from the philosophy of Locke, Hartley and Helvetius, (12) Utilitarianism can be defined as ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number.’ The strength of Bentham’s theory lies in the simplicity in which it combines Hedonism and Consequentialism. The moral worth of an action is dependent in the terms of the happiness or utility produced in consequence. This does not imply a selfish individualism in which the happiness of the actor is the only consideration. Happiness is best increased and can only be maximised if the largest number of people are affected by the moral action. Obviously political actions, which can sometimes affect entire nations, have the greatest potential to increase the utility of the populace. Bentham and his followers felt that Utilitarian principles should be applied to law, thus establishing a rational and intellectual liberalism within Britain, rather than the theologically based liberalism promoted by Locke.

James Mill, Bentham’s friend and collaborator, was so taken by his intellect that he endeavoured to raise his son, J.S. Mill, by Benthamite principles. His interest in India was again based on demonstrating the practise of Benthamite principles he so admired. His The History of British India (1871) has been described as a classic. In it he describes the backwardness of India and criticises the Hindu religion as a static superstitious system of beliefs not dissimilar to others found in the most early primitive societies; even in Britain before the Roman invasion. Mill’s editor H.H. Wilson, felt the attack on India described in the book was "calculated to destroy all sympathy between the rulers and he ruled." (13) The Indian arts and philosophies that had attracted Hastings and many others, Mill dismisses as simply ‘rude’ and testament to how far from modern civilisation India really was. Mill’s impression of India was, overall, a "hideous state of society." (14) His resolution to India’s problems is unsurprisingly Benthamite. For India to progress, and progress rapidly, good laws provided by good government were needed. The maximisation of happiness should be the ends of all good government, but their governmental business should be run efficiently and with as little expense as possible. One year after publication, Mill was able to press his ideas further with his employment by the Company at India House.

With both Evangelicals and Utilitarians working within the Company, it was not long before these reformist ideas were able to effect policy in India. The Evangelists were able, in 1813, to secure toleration of missionary activity in India. Previously, the Company had feared that such interference in religious matters would ignite passionate, united resistance against British intrusion. Both reformist campaigns benefited in 1828 with the appointment of Lord Bentinck as Governor-General. Sympathetic towards Evangelicalism, Bentinck was a self-professed Utilitarian; on his appointment, he to Jeremy Bentham "I shall govern in name, but it will be you who will govern in fact." (15) Like both Mill and Grant, he had little sympathy for Indian culture or institutions. During his first year he outlawed suttee, the Hindu practise of widow burning, with little opposition from India or those British whose respect for Indian culture generally frowned upon Western interference. He was actually supported by some Indians, such as Ram Mohan Roy, who disliked the tradition. Nevertheless, the practice still continued covertly, even into the twentieth century. (16) Bentinck’s Governorship also saw great economic reform, turning a large deficit into a surplus, within just six years. These positive actions supported the reformist justifications of the British raj, though their radical ambitions were for far more reaching interference.

Both these movements benefited in Britain through these achievements in India. They both attempted to promote the original savage assumptions of Indian practice and custom, exaggerating those elements which would cause the greatest distress to the British public. The worse the scenario, the greater the reformist achievements would be seen. There was a general consensus in Britain, even among the most egalitarian ideologies, that India was somehow inferior. Thus, Bentham’s Utilitarian ambitions were more likely to be tested, and whole-heartedly attempted, in India. If Utilitarianism could be demonstrated to work in India, portrayed as a land of savage backwardness, the potential for a modern nation would be unlimited. If it could deliver its promise of good effective government in India, what could it achieve if incorporated in Britain? Similarly, if Evangelicalism provided the moral reformation it suggested amongst Indian depravation, it would be looked upon more favourably in Britain.

Both movements ultimately failed to deliver their intentions and were never fully adopted, either in the subcontinent, or in Britain. In discrediting Indian society, it appears they were victims of their own success, as Francis Hutchins states, "Mill’s successors ignored his radical commitment to human equality, emphasising instead a conception of Indian inferiority to which Mill’s own attacks…had unintentionally contributed." (17) Their refusal to accept the findings of men like Hastings, led to their increased ignorance of the very people they wanted to enforce their ideologies upon. India was never the barbaric, static society they presumed, but a developing, changing society with its own unique strengths and internal systems. Both reform movements had an effect on India; they were diluted and blended into parts of the society, but mostly on Indian terms. By the end of the 1830’s the reformist zeal that had driven their causes had ebbed. Evangelicalism never really took a firm grip in India. The missionaries gained some converts, mainly amongst the poor and lower castes, who felt alienated within society. With the deaths of Bentham and Mill, the Utilitarian movement fractionalised. Authoritarian Utilitarians, such as Sir James Fitzjames Stephen differed in approach to the liberal J.S. Mill, who continued to develop and criticise the Utilitarian ideology. By attempting to subject India to their ideologies, the reformers managed to undermine their own ideals in British minds. Their efforts clearly showed the falsity of their assumptions of universality.

Only a few of the various justifications for British raj have been mentioned above. The fact that there are many more only highlights how much the British needed to justify their rule to themselves. The growth of Britain’s liberal conscience made the frantic quest for meanings more desperate. As each idea was pushed forward, counter-arguments were formed, yet despite all this ideological activity, no arguments were found that satisfied all concerned. The British, despite some of the noblest, as well as dishonourable, intentions, never completely understood India.



  1. "The paradise of the earth" is the expression Robert Clive used in the House of Commons. Quoted in P.J. Marshall – PROBLEMS OF EMPIRE: BRITAIN AND INDIA 1757-1813 (George Allen & Unwin, 1968) p.58
  2. For a full explanation of this analogy and other very interesting psychological theories concerning the British raj see Ashis Nandy – THE INTIMATE ENEMY: LOSS AND RECOVERY OF SELF UNDER COLONIALISM (Oxford University Press, 1994) pp.15-17
  3. Thomas R. Metcalf – IDEOLOGIES OF THE RAJ (Cambridge University Press, 1994) pp.10-11
  4. Thomas R. Metcalf – op. cit. p10
  5. The Asiatic Society was established under Hastings’ patronage.
  6. Thomas R. Metcalf – Ibid. p.10
  7. Percival Spear – A HISTORY OF INDIA: Volume Two (Penguin Books, 1990) pp.93-4
  8. Quoted in Judith M. Brown – MODERN INDIA: THE ORIGINS OF AN ASIAN DEMOCRACY (Oxford University Press, 1994) p.64
  9. P.J. Marshall – Ibid. p.69
  10. Percival Spear – Ibid. p.122
  11. Francis Hutchins – THE ILLUSION OF PERMANENCE: BRITISH IMPERIALISM IN INDIA (Princeton University Press, 1967) p.12
  12. Or so it is implied in Bertrand Russell – HISTORY OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY (George Allen & Unwin, 1946) p.801
  13. Francis Hutchins – Ibid. p.16
  14. Thomas R. Metcalf – Ibid. p.30
  15. Judith M. Brown – Ibid. p.71
  16. Judith M. Brown suggests that a recent case was as late as 1980 – Ibid. p.78
  17. Francis Hutchins – Ibid. pp.16-17




Judith M. Brown


(Oxford University Press, 1994)

John Dunn


(Cambridge University Press, 1993)

Francis Hutchins


(Princeton University Press, 1967)

Leonard Krieger


(Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1971)

Will Kymlicka


(Oxford University Press, 1997)

P.J. Marshall


(George Allen & Unwin, 1968)

Thomas R. Metcalf


(Cambridge University Press, 1994)

Ashis Nandy


(Oxford University Press, 1983)

Bertrand Russell


(George Allen & Unwin, 1946)

Percival Spear


(Penguin Books, 1990)




HISTORY TODAY India and the British Volume 47 (9) September 1997

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