Robert Clive and Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey, 1757, by Francis Hayman

In 1894, as Queen Victoria smiled upon the empire upon which the sun never was allowed to set, the British literary historian Sir Alfred Comyn Lyall wrote a book that was to go through five editions by 1910 and reprints for a decade after. This was The Rise and Expansion of the British Dominion in India, published by Murray in London (I am using the 1919 edition, only recently ejected from my university library collection). This was, of course, before the fall, before India achieved independence from the Raj lords in 1947. As the 19th century came to a close, Lyall could boast that “the existing relations between India and England constitute a political situation unprecedented in the world’s history” (p. 3). Although Edward Said was aware of the biased Orientalist notions of Lyall, this particular book appears to have escaped Said’s justifiable wrath. He thus missed the telling remark that the “Indian people were, from the beginning, so far from objecting to the English dominion in India that they co-operated willingly in promoting it” (p. 3). Perhaps Lyall prefigures Gramsci in this respect; both understand the power of hegemony. Lyall, by the way, was also a poet, who once wrote a diatribe in verse, called Theology in Extremis, against attempts in India to convert British prisoners to Islam.

Lyall, not to be confused with his fellow civil servant and Arabist namesake, Charles James Lyall, was also concerned about the future of British India. He teases the reader with a quote made by Sir James Mackintosh that “England has lost a great dominion in North America in 1783 and had won another in India in 1805,” adding that “it was still uncertain whether the former as any real loss, or the latter any permanent gain” (p. 353). Another historian, Spencer Walpole, opined “Centuries hence, some philosophical historian … will relate the history of the British in India as a romantic episode which has had no appreciable effect upon the progress of the human family” (p. 353). Perhaps the episode was not romantic for people under British rule in India and the appreciable effect took place mainly on Indian bodies on the Indian continent. But Walpole seems quite prescient to me.

The future had to be more British rule, as Lyall saw it. After all the “Oriental races” were “possessed by barbarism entrenched behind the unchanging conditions of Asiatic existence” (p. 353). Given these sentiments, you may not be surprised at Lyall’s predictive futurism from more than a century ago:

Not only is it certain that Asia lies at the mercy of the military power and resources of Europe, but in all the departments of thought and action she is still far inferior. In these circumstances European progress is never likely to suffer another great repulse at the hands of Oriental reaction; and the English dominion, once firmly planted in Asia, is not likely to be shaken unless it is supplanted by a stronger european rival. Henceforward the struggle will be, not between the Eastern and Western races, but between the great commercial and conquering nations of the WEst for predominance in Asia. From this contest England has now little to fear; and in the meantime we have undertaken the intellectual emancipation of the Indian people; we are changing the habits of thought, the religious ideas, the moral level of the whole country. No one can as yet venture upon any prognostic of the course which the subtle and searching mind of India will mark out for itself amid the cross-currents of Eastern and Western influences. But we may be sure that diffusion of knowledge and changes of material environment are acting steadily on mental habits, and that future historians will have a second remarkable illustration of the force with which a powerful and highly organized civilization can mould the character and shape the destinies of many millions of people. And whatever may be the ultimate destiny of our Indian empire, we shall have conferred upon the Indians great and permanent benefits, and shall have left a good name for ourselves in history. (pp. 355-356).

Dear, Mr. Lyall, I have only one question: a good name in whose history?