Sub-titled Decline and Fall of the British Empire, this book, by an ex-officer of the Royal Air Force who was an equerry of King George VI, is by any standards a remarkable book—full of information, political insights, and written in a most readable style. The author who from the vantage point of Buckingham Palace watched the dismantling of four pillars of the Empire—Ireland, India, Burma and Palestine, weaves the events at any one period of time in those four centuries so skillfully into one story that the reader feels that he too is a witness to the struggle for independence of these countries, foreign to the British in tradition and culture, and which resented allegiance to the British King-Emperor and domination by Britain. The author who intersperses his narrative with delightful and shrewd bits of irony and cynical humour, also clearly brings out the contrast between the romantic rigidity of Churchill and the conservative government and the liberalism and realism of Attlee and the labour government which, accepting that Britain had emerged from the war too enfeebled to hold by force millions of unwilling subjects, could not hand over power fast enough.
In fact, if there was any delay in this process, which Churchill scornfully termed as ‘operation scuttle’, it was unavoidable because the British had too great a sense of responsibility to follow Gandhi’s advice to Mountbatten ‘to take the risk: of leaving India to chaos and anarchy’ and were only delayed by their determination to leave behind as much stability as was possible in the circumstances. Like sons wrangling over their dead father’s inheritance, there were in each of the countries rival claimants struggling for power, as much against each other as against the British.
The story commences with the first Empress who assumed this prestigious title which Disraeli conceived in 1876, a centenary which Indian historians, perhaps understandably, seem to have overlooked. Strangely enough, this new title raised little opposition among the silent and illiterate millions of India but great opposition among the politically conscious and articulate British. What the controversy brought out clearly was that Disraeli, who though a conservative knew what it was to be an underdog, had his sympathies with the coloured non-British colonies whereas Gladstone, the liberal, thought only in terms of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Since the new title ignored these territories, Gladstone denounced it in forthright terms stating that Empress was a title ‘that went to impair the dignity and lustre of the Crown’, and hoped that there would be no further attempts to ‘patch and mend, I would almost say tinker with the royal title’.
The accession of the Empress Victoria to the throne of the Mughals was proclaimed at Delhi, their ancient capital, on 1 January 1877. ‘You natives of India … said her Viceroy, ‘have a recognized claim to share largely with your English fellow-subjects in the administration of the country you inhabit …’. Here the author punctuates the narrative with ‘to have said “your country” would have been admitting too much’. Elsewhere, Victoria’s empire was not so easily established. In neighbouring Afghanistan the British occupied Kabul, but later withdrew. In South Africa, nearly a thousand of her soldiers were surprised and massacred by Cetywayo’s Zulu impis. In South Africa also, Transvaal had been occupied, but the Boers soon rose in revolt and the Boer War commenced. But to Victoria this was a ‘civil war’—the Boers being ‘my subjects’.
At the other end of Africa, her army crushed Arabi pasha at Tel-el-Kebir and her Prime Minister Disraeli pulled off an imperial coup by buying up the bankrupt Khedive’s block of Suez Canal Company shares. A little further south, in the Sudan, the forces of the Mahdi surrounded Khartoum and killed Gordon. But Kitchener aided, if remotely, by Lieutenant Winston Churchill of the 4th Hussars soon avenged him.
In Burma, when King Thibaw, inadvisedly levied a heavy fine on the Bombay Burma Corporation for poaching timber from the king’s reserves, General Prendergast led ten thousand soldiers into Mandalay and informed Thibaw that henceforth he was a subject of the Great White Queen. Soon Burma would be under her Viceroy in India, which added insult to injury.
The author writes a script well worthy of the drama that covered the period from 1876 to 1947: from the first Empress Victoria to her great-grandson, the last Emperor, George VI. This scenario is too vast to be condensed into a short review which, in any case, should be more than a summary. This reviewer will therefore confine himself to highlighting certain points which are of particular interest to Indian readers.
The first point that stands out is the contrast between the peace and loyally of the ‘white’ colonies such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand and the unrest in ‘coloured’ colonies and even in ‘white’ colonies where there were non-British or non-protestant inhabitants, such as in South Africa and Ireland. Moreover, those who imagine that communalism is an Indian phenomenon will be interested to find that we have no monopoly of this social aberration. Poor Britannica soon found that her Pax certainly brought her no peace, and far from dividing and ruling, she had to stand astride a social cleft which steadily grew wider in many countries. Such was the case between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, between Jews and Muslims in her mandate over Palestine, between Dutch Boers and British colonists in South Africa, and larger perhaps but certainly not more intense, between Hindus and Muslims in India. We read much about the ‘Communal Award’ in India, but Britain had to have round table conferences and make similar awards in each of these countries. And in each country they failed. Communalism unfortunately, is stronger than constitutions, and emotion stronger than reason.
It is astonishing that in spite of so much information now available there are those who still believe that Pakistan was a British creation and the ultimate manifestation of their divisive policy. This book underlines what is brought out in other publications and memoirs that Wavell and Mountbatten did everything within their constitutional power to prevent the bifurcation of India. But what the British insisted on was that no constitution should be imposed on an unwilling section of the Indian people. This principle has been criticized in various ways which sum up to the charge that it was conceding Pakistan by the back-door. But those who still adhere to this theory seem to forget that exactly the same principle is being followed today in regard to a common civil code and the Muslims, and Hindi in regard to Tamils. It has been said that what is sauce for the goose should also be sauce for the gander.
Readers of The Viceroy’s Journal must have been surprised, and a little shocked, at the pejoratives Wavell directs at Gandhi. This has been attributed to the reaction of a ‘blunt’ solider to a ‘wily’ politician, of a Muslim-favouring Englishman to a Hindu, of a ‘simple’ man to a ‘complex’ personality, and so on. But this book directs attention to a fact which is generally overlooked when judging Wavell as Viceroy. During the dark days of the War when Britain was fighting for her very existence he was Commander-in-Chief of India. At this juncture, the Congress launched, under Gandhi’s inspiration, a civil disobedience, but by no means a non-violent movement. Since Wavell believed that while he may have been defending British interests he was also defending India from Japanese conquest, he considered this uprising a treacherous stab in the back for which he never forgave Gandhi who to him personified the Congress. The moral of this is that given the circumstances, Wavell was obviously the wrong man to entrust with delicate political negotiations.
While no man born could have been exactly the right man, Mountbatten was nearer the mark. One of his qualifications, according to Attlee who appointed him was that in contrast to Wavell who was a ‘curious silent bird’, Mountbatten was loquacious enough to out-talk the Indians. That Mountbatten fully vindicated Attlee’s confidence needs no emphasis.
There exists a certain amount of controversy over how and why Mountbatten was requested to stay on in India after the transfer of power. Since the author was at that time equerry to George VI, he should have known the circumstances if anyone did and his version is probably as near the truth as any. Perhaps it would be best to quote the author’s own words:
Another problem which greatly exercised the Viceroy was the future Governor-Generalship of the two new Dominions. He believed that they should both have the same GovernorGeneral, who would act as a mediator and bridge the gap between them. He was willing, if invited by both, to accept the post. Nehru agreed, but Jinnah differed …. However he did beg Mountbatten to stay on as Governor-General of India.
Peter Townsend has written a most informative and enthralling book, and one which once opened is difficult to put down.
M.R.A. Baig is a former member of the Indian Foreign Service.