Thursday, 21 January 2010

The Great Game - The End Of The Raj

One of the more disregarded items of news in the torrent of tragedy and politics we have had in the last few days is that the UK Foreign Office, headed by Miliband, apparently is seeking to create a regional joint stabilisation council made up of the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Possibly other small states in the region might be invited along as observers or contributors.

It is déjà vu all over again. One of my uncles found himself up on the North West Frontier in the early 1940’s and did not enjoy the experience. He returned with the conviction that the sooner we were out of the sub continent the better and that we should stay out at all costs. Because so much of our history is seen through the murky glass of hindsight and modern ideas we have forgotten, or found it more convenient to forget because of our current ideologies that we may have been here before.

The picture above is of the Viceroy’s Body Guard in the 1890’s, after 1947 it became the President’s and before the 1870’s it had been the Governor General’s. For those who have watched the series “Jewel In The Crown” it appears in the introductions. The engagement with the sub continent changed and developed down the years and the image we have from The Raj of Kipling’s time and later is false in terms of the situation before the Mutiny of 1857 and the creation of the Imperial India of 1876. The imposition of a more Anglo-Centric character on the administration of the territories then under control or compliant began in the late 1830’s.

Before the Governors’ General Macaulay etc. in the time of Charles Theophilus Metcalfe and before there was a more Asiatic approach to governance. Metcalfe encouraged the study of the History and Culture of the East. His Aide, Major Turner Macan was instrumental in rescuing and enabling the survival of the “Shah Nameh” of Firdausi, the great classic of ancient Persian literature, a relative Caswall wrote the first grammar of Hindi, and William McNaghton in the Royal Asiatic Society created a body of study that recognised the wealth and value of the Eastern languages, literature, and culture.

The aims of the Honourable East India Company was not so much direct control and deep involvement, that was clearly beyond the resources of either the Company or of the UK, but across the sub continent the “stabilisation” of the wide mix of contending local rulers to enable trade and the reliable flow of bullion critical to the City of London and UK public finances. They wanted peace, treaties to enable admission, and a willingness for local rulers to accept trade and guidance on Company terms.

The trading and bullion issues in India were intermingled with the China trade and the Company was reaching out to that Empire because it was in the familiar grip of the expand or fail situation so familiar to much of commerce. We now may like to separate all these ventures in distinct modules for study, but for the Company and the traders of the time all things were connected. Eventually, the British lodged themselves in Hong Kong, Canton, and Shanghai in competition with other powers for as big as slice of the action in Chinese riches as they could get. This included trading in substances that were illegal in China, notably opium.

Now, at the end of it all, in the last dying gasp of Empire (aka Commonwealth) having gone from stabilisation to influence and trade, then rule, turning into Empire, we are back where we started and in a lot more financial trouble than we were at the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

We are a relatively small state with ideas above its station in the world, relying on threats and influence, needing to repair our public finances and to exert some sort of control over the international drugs trade. The men I have mentioned were giants of intellect and understanding. We are left with Miliband and Brown, neither of whom speak coherent English let alone any Eastern tongues.

And the HSBC Bank are off to Shanghai in the morning.

No comments:

Post a Comment