In 2007, a book called God and Gold came out. It’s author, Walter Russell Mead, argued that the United States of America is the natural successor of the “empire” mantle that had once belonged to Great Britain. Mead’s imaginary ideal of the British empire as a benevolent force is ripped to pieces here by Johann Hari in a New York Times review. The reviewer uses the city of Kolkata (called Calcutta until a few years ago) to make his point.
Mead presents these empires as essentially benevolent confections, offering a model of rule so seductive that “people choose freely to belong” to them. He says that by 1851, it looked as if “the Peaceable Kingdom had arrived; British power, progress, prosperity and liberty were ushering in the universal rule of peace.” Really? Is that how it looked in, say, India? When Clive of India came to Bengal, he described it — in a way all visitors of the time did — as “extensive, populous and as rich as the city of London.” It was a place of such “richness and abundance” that “neither war, pestilence nor oppression could destroy” it. But within a century of British occupation, the population of its largest city, Calcutta, fell from 150,000 to 30,000 as its industries were wrecked in the interests of the mother country. By the time the British left, Calcutta was one of the poorest places in the world. Is this really the baton the United States should pick up?
Not to sound cantankerous, but I am tired of hearing about all the good things that the British did for India. The empire was a selfish force, out to grab riches for the queen of England. Nothing that they did was “for” India. They were invaders, plain and simple.