The british empire

The greed and hypocrisy of the opium trade continue to shock

‘A fact that confounds me now when I think back on it,’ writes the acclaimed Indian author Amitav Ghosh at the start of this expansive and thoughtful book, ‘is that for most of my life China was for me a vast, uniform blankness.’ There were many reasons for this, he says. The war between India and China in 1962 might have played a part, along with the complex relationship between the two countries since then; but also the way that ‘an inner barrier’ has been ‘implanted in the minds’ of many around the world – one that blocks out China but allows in the ‘language, clothing, sport, material objects and

The British Empire’s latest crime – to have ended the Enlightenment

What is the Enlightenment, and when did it come to an end? Neither are easy questions to answer. The Enlightenment, as a historical phenomenon or a phenomenon of ideas, coalesced into an attempt to rid humanity of rigid superstitions and fanaticism and liberate it from tyranny of every sort. Its first movements were discernible in Europe in the 17th century, and it became a continent-wide experiment of thought in the following one. But when did it end – as the title of Richard Whatmore’s book takes for granted? There’s a good case for stating that it never came to an end. Once tyranny and religious certainty were dismissed as universal

Masters of the opium trade: the fabulous wealth of the Sassoons

Just before I started to read this book I had been immersed in the letters written by Jewish merchants based in Cairo from the tenth to the 12th centuries describing the trade they conducted across the Indian Ocean all the way to the Malabar coast. These letters are written in a difficult cursive Hebrew script and in a Judaeo-Arabic dialect, so one needs greater expertise than I possess to read them in the original. It was therefore with what was almost a sense of dejà vu that I encountered Joseph Sassoon’s fascinating account of the rise and fall of the Sassoon family, from the beginning of the 19th century to

The British Empire is now the subject on which the sun never sets

Wrestling with the history of the British Empire is the unfinished and unfinishable project of our history. Time’s Monster takes a meta-approach to this. Its author Priya Satia has read widely, and has written essentially a cultural history of the Empire from the early modern period to today, of the way Britain’s colonial expansion has been interwoven with the culture. Many of the connections she draws are intriguing and her narrative is nuanced enough to be sympathetic to both pro- and anti-imperial arguments past and present. But overlaying this is a discussion of how historians themselves have shaped the perception of the Empire, acting as boosters, or at least as