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Gentlemanly terrorists: political violence and the colonial state in India, 1919–1947. By DurbaGhosh. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. xv + 275. ISBN 9781316637388. £23.99 paperback.

India conquered: Britain's Raj and the chaos of empire. By JonWilson. London: Simon and Schuster, 2016. Pp. 576. ISBN 9781471101250. £14.99.

The insecurity state: Punjab and the making of colonial power in British India. By MarkCondos. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. xi + 260. ISBN 9781108418317. £75.00.

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 January 2020

University of Macau


Chaos reigns – at least in the historiography of the Raj. It was once the consensus among historians that British imperial authority in the Indian subcontinent was secure for at least the century-and-a-half before the Second World War. Recently, however, this narrative has drawn a range of challenges. Prominently, Mark Condos and Jon Wilson have held that British imperial authority was chronically insecure. In their view, the irrational anxiety of generations of British officials produced a chaotic administration with minimal social purchase or ideological coherence. Instead of a confident state capable of acting as it chose, these historians have limned a psychologically embattled one incapable of acting except in the abstract, small scale, or short term. Their bold revision succeeds in dispelling the aura of indomitability that has often surrounded the Raj, and in directing attention to its overlooked discontents and weaknesses. Yet their characterization of the British regime as constantly and pervasively anxious is more an article of faith than a conclusion warranted by evidence. Nor do they explain how, if the regime suffered from permanent ‘chaos’ or ‘insecurity’, it managed to survive for some two hundred years. At the heart of Condos's and Wilson's approach is an effort to bypass texts that results, instead, in misreading them. It is largely by re-emphasizing rigorous textual methods, therefore, that Durba Ghosh offers a compelling alternative approach to the history of state vulnerability and disorder.

Review Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2020

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1 In addition to the books reviewed here, see Wagner, Kim, Amritsar 1919: an empire of fear and the making of a massacre (New Haven, CT, 2019)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and other works by the same author. For related studies with a broader, British-imperial or trans-imperial scope, see Reinkowski, Maurus and Thum, Gregor, eds., Helpless imperialists: imperial failure, fear, and radicalization (Göttingen, 2013)Google Scholar; Burton, Antoinette, The trouble with empire: challenges to modern British imperialism (Oxford, 2015)Google Scholar; Peckham, Robert, ed., Empires of panic: epidemics and colonial anxieties (Hong Kong, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Fischer-Tiné, Harald, ed., Anxieties, fear and panic in colonial settings: empires on the verge of a nervous breakdown (Basingstoke, 2016)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 For a study of this new political landscape suggesting many points of connection with the works reviewed here, see Davies, William, Nervous states: how feeling took over the world (London, 2018)Google Scholar.

3 Confusing the terminology somewhat, an earlier incarnation of the ‘Cambridge School’ in South Asian history focused on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century national movements. A comprehensive genealogy of this field is much needed, but for a perceptive outline, see Subrahmanyam, Sanjay, ‘One for the money, two for the show: on postcolonial studies and South Asian history’, L'Homme, 1878 (2008), pp. 93104CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 See esp. Bayly, C. A., Rulers, townsmen and bazaars: north Indian society in the age of British expansion, 1770–1870 (Cambridge, 1983)Google Scholar; Washbrook, D. A., ‘Progress and problems: South Asian economic and social history, c. 1720–1860’, Modern Asian Studies, 22 (1988), pp. 5796CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 See esp. Bayly, C. A., ‘Knowing the country: empire and information in India’, Modern Asian Studies, 27 (1993), pp. 343, at pp. 35–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bayly, , Empire and information: intelligence gathering and social communication in India, 1780–1870 (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 143, 149, 171–4, 316Google Scholar.

6 For a review of works on the history of the British empire, and particularly British India, that expressed some of this discontent, see Sartori, Andrew, ‘The British empire and its liberal mission’, Journal of Modern History, 78 (2006), pp. 623–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See generally Spiegel, Gabrielle M., introduction to Spiegel, ed., Practicing history: new directions in historical writing after the linguistic turn (New York, NY, 2005), pp. 131Google Scholar; Mah, Harold, ‘The predicament of experience’, Modern Intellectual History, 5 (2008), pp. 97119CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Burman, Jeremy T., ‘Bringing the brain into history: behind Hunt's and Smail's appeals to neurohistory’, in Tileagă, Cristian and Byford, Jovan, eds., Psychology and history: interdisciplinary explorations (Cambridge, 2014), pp. 6381Google Scholar.

7 Condos is less dismissive than Wilson of ‘literary and cultural examinations’. Similarly, however, he proposes to improve on them by accessing the ‘very foundations of colonial power’ via ‘the archive’ (Condos, pp. 10, 11).

8 Wilson, Jon E., The domination of strangers: modern governance in eastern India, 1780–1835 (Basingstoke, 2008), pp. 913CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For extensions of this argument, see Wilson, , ‘Anxieties of distance: codification in early colonial Bengal’, Modern Intellectual History, 4 (2007), pp. 723CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Wilson, , ‘The silence of empire: imperialism and India’, in Craig, David and Thompson, James, eds., Languages of politics in nineteenth-century Britain (Basingstoke, 2013), pp. 218–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Wilson, , ‘The temperament of empire: law and conquest in late 19th-century India’, in Cederlof, Gunnel and Gupta, Sanjukta Das, eds., Subjects, citizens, and law: colonial and postcolonial India (Abingdon, 2016), pp. 3859Google Scholar.

9 Wilson, Domination of strangers, pp. 10, 12.

10 Wilson plays up British warnings of a French plot to invade India in 1798, which other historians have seen as a flimsy pretext for war against France's ally Mysore (Wilson, p. 164). Cf. Ingram, Edward, Britain's Persian connection, 1798–1828: prelude to the great game in Asia (Oxford, 1992), pp. 2351Google Scholar.

11 Condos reproduces a magazine cover that he claims ‘captures the unease and fearfulness of the white British community’ (Condos, p. 200).

12 To deny an official’s claim that he had ‘“no fear”’ and “‘never had a bad night from anxiety’”, Condos misconstrues the commonplace assertion that the Raj was ‘“based on Opinion”’ as a striking confession that the Raj was based on a fragile illusion of invincibility (Condos, pp. 217–19).

13 See Barbara H. Rosenwein's suggestion that people regularly move between ‘emotional communities’, each time ‘adjusting their emotional displays and their judgments of weal and woe’. Rosenwein, Barbara H., ‘Worrying about emotions in history’, American Historical Review, 107 (2002), pp. 821–45, at p. 842CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 Wilson alternately diagnoses overcompensation and a sense of deflation in British designs for New Delhi, pointing up first their grandiosity and then their economy (Wilson, pp. 5, 386–8, 503).

15 See recently Gilmour, David, The British in India: a social history of the Raj (New York, NY, 2018)Google Scholar.

16 Wilson claims bluntly that ‘there was no space for…negotiation between ruler and subjects’ (Wilson, p. 371). Condos, for his part, seems to include ‘conciliatory methods’ under the banner of ‘strong-armed rule’ and, hence, to see the carrot as just another kind of stick (Condos, p. 23).

17 Esp. Auerbach, Jeffrey A., Imperial boredom: monotony and the British empire (Oxford, 2018)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Auerbach announced this argument as early as 2005 in Auerbach, , ‘Imperial boredom and the administration of empire’, Common Knowledge, 11 (2005), pp. 283305CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 Although both authors describe anxiety as an emotion, Condos refers to the history of emotions only in a late footnote, while Wilson does not mention the field at all (Condos, pp. 230 n. 29).

19 Studies of emotion have long divided along universalist and social constructivist lines. Yet even granting a common physiological basis for emotions, it is still necessary to contend with their outward diversity, and with the evident feedback loop between sensation and description. For a lucid discussion, see Plamper, Jan, The history of emotions: an introduction, trans. Tribe, Keith (Oxford, 2015)Google Scholar.

20 Bourke, Joanna, Fear: a cultural history (London, 2005)Google Scholar; Plamper, Jan, ‘Fear: soldiers and emotion in early twentieth-century Russian military psychology’, Slavic Review, 68 (2009), pp. 259–83CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 According to Barbara H. Rosenwein, it is such methods that give historians an important role in challenging the presentism and universalism of other research on emotions. Rosenwein, Barbara H., ‘Problems and methods in the history of emotions’, Passions in Context, 1 (2010)Google Scholar, <>.

22 Wilson favours ‘chaos’, while Condos favours ‘insecurity’, but the meanings of the two terms appear to be similar.

23 Historians have sometimes used such rhetoric, for instance, to point up the inadequacy of neat structural or discursive analyses.

24 The two authors differ somewhat on whether the risk was genuine. While Wilson argues that the British were ‘always one step away from defeat’ in India (Wilson, p. 499), Condos argues that, by the later period at least, they ‘believed they were weaker than they actually were’ (Condos, p. 23).

25 The questioner was none other than Durba Ghosh. Jon Wilson et al., roundtable discussion of Wilson, , India conquered, Reviews in History, 2224 (2018)Google Scholar, <>.

26 Subrahmanyam, ‘One for the money’.

27 See Metcalf, Thomas R., Ideologies of the Raj (Cambridge, 1995)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The Cambridge School exemplar C. A. Bayly himself later took an ideological turn. See Bayly, C. A., Recovering liberties: Indian thought in the age of liberalism and empire (Cambridge, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 Ghosh herself only briefly alluded to the two schools and their respective limitations. Ghosh, Durba, Sex and the family in colonial India: the making of empire (Cambridge, 2006), pp. 22–3CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29 For criticism of this reluctance, see Maya Jasanoff, ‘The unknown women of India’, New York Review of Books, 18 Dec. 2008.

30 Ghosh points out, for instance, that ‘Indian politicians across the political spectrum…strategically used the threat of revolutionary terrorism’ in dealings with the British regime (Ghosh, p. 11).

31 Wilson, Domination of strangers, pp. 182–3.