Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The Scandal of Empire

Book Cover

Book Title

The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006


Dirks, Nicholas B.


Dirks draws a parallel from the use of charges of weapons of mass destruction in the present-day international context as false pretext of invasion in 1991 to the earlier period of imperial history; that of the British conquest and occupation of India in the eighteenth century.

While the trial and impeachment of Hastings had exposed the corruption of British presence in India, it ironically resulted in empire acting as a natural extension of British sovereign and commercial rights and interests. The book represents an in-depth exploration of how well-known scandals of the East India Company in the eighteenth century became forgotten or subsumed within the larger and more compelling imperial narrative of an exhausted land that invited Britain to conquer it. Particularly, the book recognizes the work of historians of India who had observed how the social, political and cultural and economic buoyancy of India becomes suppressed by the narrative in which decay of India becomes the primary reason for, and the inevitability of European conquest.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The scope includes the constitutive importance of empire for modern Europe and the record of violence and scandal that mars all imperial encounters.

Dirks explores the arguments put forth by historians who had examined the significance of the British empire in bringing about an end to a 'despotic' rule and bring India back from the 'decay' it has become since the prevailing view was that of an endemic Mughal decline. Mostly, the book focuses on the debates surrounding the portrayal of important characters such as Clive, Burke and Hastings. Clive himself has been constantly portrayed as the epitome of masters of empire.

The book thus possesses the aim to refocus attention on the history of empire, cutting through unquestioned assumptions of imperial history. Thus, the concept of colonial ideology is distinguished from a balanced history, cases of managerial crises for the political history of empire are examined, and the genuine perils of empire are brought out to light.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

The author argued that although the trial and impeachment of Hastings had brought to light the corruption of British presence in India, it ironically enacted the reformist agenda of Burke. It made empire a natural extension of British sovereign and commercial rights and interests. As the trial continues, with scandal becoming increasingly identified to have roots in Indian principles and culture itself, it became the principal justification for a formal establishment of empire. Dirks thus argues that there was a real impact of trials such as Hastings' in changing the circumstances in which empire creation becomes a valid and desirable political outcome.

The primary focus of the book is on the topic of sovereignty. The greatest scandal concerned this idea of a private trade was predicated on the unscrupulous use of a Mughal imperial decree of 1717, granting a suspension of tariff for some Company trade under limited conditions. Thus, the author argues persistently on how the systematic misuse of treaties by the East India Company had led to a consistent breach on the sovereignty of the Mughal empire, subsequently creating the conditions that increased the chance for empire-creation.

Annotated by Michelle Djong