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


Review: The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain
(August Review, 2006)

The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain
by Nicholas B. Dirks (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006)


Twenty-first century Americans are no strangers to political scandal. Over the past three decades, headlines in respected newspapers and tabloids alike have proclaimed a myriad of scandals of various types. To take some liberties with Ian Dury's triad, sex, drugs, and financial and electoral manipulation have become mainstays in political reportage. From Watergate to "nannygate," Iran-Contra to Monica Lewinsky, Halliburton to Whitewater and cocaine busts and teenage drinking, political scandals are ever-present in American media. But do these scandals (among others) owe their origins to the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings, governor-general in India , which lasted from 1788 to 1795? Nicholas Dirks argues that the scandal surrounding the Hastings trial resonates with the multitude of political scandals of today, finding the origins of modern notions of corruption and public virtue in these impeachment proceedings.1

Dirks is a renowned scholar of South Asian and British imperial history at Columbia University. The Scandal of Empire attempts to show how the scandal surrounding Hastings' rule in India changed the justification for British imperial expansion.2 According to Dirks, the British deliberately pursued a policy of expansion, and deliberately manipulated the "spin" (in modern parlance) surrounding events in their territories to consolidate power and gain public support for their imperial ambitions. British politicians and business leaders used scandals in India to create ideas about corporate responsibility, civic involvement, nationalism, bureaucracy, and tradition.

Dirks organizes this text into nine lengthy thematic chapters on the broad themes he posits the Hastings' trial changed or influenced. In each, he uses the findings of his archival research to illustrate how the trial shaped ideas surrounding empire broadly and about India specifically. At the center of his analysis is the Hastings impeachment trial. Hastings, ultimately acquitted, was brought up on charges ranging from corruption in his business dealings to inappropriate relationships with Indian leaders. For Edmund Burke, who filed the charges against Hastings, and others in England , the root of the scandal was the personal fortunes individuals amassed in India and, at times, the harsh treatment the British meted out to the natives. Throughout the remainder of the book, Dirks continues to explore the trial as an example of how events in India were used to further imperial expansion, changed the debate surrounding why the British were in India , and how these debates created a modern British identity based on the existence of empire.

Overall, this is a very well written text. Dirks has an engaging writing style that typically flows well. Occasionally, the flow is interrupted by long quotations that do not seem to be well integrated into the surrounding text. Dirks also does not fully define some of his terms. Though many words are explained with definitions in parenthesis, several are not defined thoroughly and a few others not defined at all. A general audience, not familiar with historical terms from the British Empire, may think they are missing something by not understanding some of the vocabulary Dirks uses; however, the text itself is easy to follow, and Dirks' style is generally smooth.

That he contemporizes the issues of the Hastings trial throughout the book is one of its most striking strengths. Dirks' impressive ability to link the trial to contemporary issues gives this book broad appeal. One would expect a fun, even salacious, read, given that his topic, loosely stated, is corruption, scandal, and power. And when Dirks contemporizes the topic, it is. The bulk of the historical analysis, however, is not the juicy, fast read one would expect from a book with scandal at its heart. When Dirks does place his study alongside current events, or reads current events through the lens of the Hastings scandal, his evaluation of both the past and present becomes all the more scathing and amps up the wattage on an otherwise cerebral examination of Hastings, Burke, and the impeachment trial that was billed as an early example of the "trial of the century."

For Dirks, the most important reason to study the Hastings trial is that it resonates so strongly in an age permeated with political scandals and saturated with "spin doctors" who manage coverage of events in distant lands to justify foreign policy forays both mundane and exotic gives currency to an event marked by rhetorical manipulation, greed, power, corruption, and scandal that mimics the same seen in recent scandals. Beyond Indian, British, or imperial histories, The Scandal of Empire should also be a significant contribution to understanding political scandals and corruption both historical and contemporary. By contextualizing a scandal of the past within current events, Dirks reminds us that the scandals of empires past offer us important lessons about the nature colonial expansion and the uses of scandal in a new era of globalization.

For Dirks, the real scandal of empire "has been the erasure of empire from the history of Europe,"3 or how scholars have neglected the centrality of empire in creating the ideas and reality of both modern Europe and European modernity. His book attempts to show just how strongly empire and the imperial quest shaped what it meant to be European in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


1 Dirks, 5

2 Dirks, 25

3 Dirks, 29


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