Criminal Tentacles

Colonial power is stereotypically portrayed in the example of the East India Company (EIC) in Philippa Levine’s The British Empire. This seems to me as much fabrication as it is at the same time revelation. Perhaps “fabrication” has harsh connotations, but attention needs to be called to the one-sided and convenient depiction of colonial power as “greedy, unscrupulous and self-seeking” (66). In describing its monstrous methods towards power and profit, the text associates the EIC with intrigue, corruption, insensibly expensive conquests, the reinforcement of Hindu oppression, and with phrases such as “the relentless expansion of territory” and “the tentacles of westernization” (76). Two aspects are left out: other motivations, factors, contexts regarding its actions, as well as how few the number of persons who direct the will of the EIC and imperial Britain, or how large the number of those who though complicit could not be fairly charged “greedy, unscrupulous and self-seeking”.

In the opium saga, colonialism is plainly criminal in producing and exporting the “dulling and addictive” substance. “In effect, the company endorsed a huge and sophisticated smuggling ring.” (73) This would be an exaggerated and inappropriate statement if applied to the modern cigarette industry. Strangely, the opium trade is closely contrasted with morals (75–76).

However, the British have their virtuous moments. These are few, and amount to little more than good will, as when the 1829 ban on suttee “did little to extirpate the practice” (72).