The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain

Michael Dodson in Reviews in History:

EmpirescandalDirks principal argument in Scandal is two-fold. First, he asserts that to say ‘empire was a scandal’ is to tell only part of the story, for scandal was not incidental to British imperialism (or, for that matter, was not to be associated with only a few individuals), but rather scandal was central to empire, as it ultimately served as the ‘crucible in which both imperial and capitalist expansion was forged’ (p. 8). Moreover, through the ‘moral spectacle’ of the impeachment trial, this public addressing of scandal helped to convert Britain’s presence in India to a perception of legitimate sovereignty, producing the conditions for empire’s success and ‘its transformation into a patriotic enterprise’ (p. 125). Thus, Dirks argues, from the 1790s onwards, thanks in large part to Edmund Burke’s machinations, scandal was no longer to be associated with British imperial rule, but with Indian socio-cultural forms (sati, thagi, female infanticide, etc.). Second, Dirks asserts that scandal, so central to imperial beginnings, has very often ‘been either laundered or converted into narratives of imperial, nationalist, and capitalist triumph’ (p. 25). In other words, Dirks argues that ‘scandal’, in itself, has largely been absent from the multitude of historical accounts written about the Company’s expansion in India (here he invokes, not for the first time in his work, John Seeley’s 1883 claim that empire was acquired in a ‘fit of absence of mind’ as his genre-defining historiographical foe). Dirks seeks unambiguously to reassert the connection.

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