Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Problems of Empire

Book Cover

Book Title

Problems of Empire: Britain and India 1757-1813. London: Allen and Unwin; New York: Barnes & Noble, 1968


Marshall, P.J. (ed.)


The book focuses on the problems faced by the British when the East India Company was transformed from a body of traders controlling a scattered group of commercial settlements round the coasts of India into rulers of provinces. Thus, political and administrative problems became the priorities of Britain as they served their role in India. The British were aware that India had a polity of their own much more sophisticated than that of African negroes and American Indians, thus their previous imperial experience was not as useful.

The book's purpose would be to indicate, partly through their own words, the opinions of shareholders in the East India Company, ministers of the Crown, members of Parliament, and such sections of the eighteenth-century public who became interested themselves in national affairs. As a result, these vital actors in the British empire slowly became aware of the problems created by the conquest of India, and how solutions were gradually evolved.

The book examines British colonial policy in India from the viewpoint of the East India Company and the government in London, focusing almost exclusively on British agents and priorities. Marshall identifies the key questions as firstly that of how to establish and maintain an empire in an area which already featured elaborate indigenous political structure and authority, and secondly that of how to balance London’s various interests: commercial, political and military. Based on extensive readings of relevant documents, including court hearings, letters and government acts, he considers the fluid nature of British colonial rule in India, from the pivotal Battle of Plassey in 1757 to the dismantling of the East India Company monopoly in 1813.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The book's starting point will be 1757, during the Battle of Plassey, which was the precursor to the Company's conquests, until the passing of the Charter in 1813, which gave formal recognition to some of the solutions to Indian problems already worked out in practice. It will focus on three main themes: the way in which the British political and administrative systems adapted themselves to meet new responsibilities, the principles and standards of which the general public opinion in Britain had tried to apply to the government of India, and the creation of new economic links between Britain and India.

Marshall selects the Battle of Plassey in 1757as his starting point because it signaled a momentous change in the nature of British presence in India. Whereas the East India Company had initially maintained a purely commercial relationship with the Mughals, the attainment of unquestioned supremacy in India after Plassey introduced political and military elements that grew in importance at the expense of commercial activity and profit. His discussion ends in 1813, when London withdrew the EIC’s monopoly.

The book is divided into four main parts. These parts are aptly titled "State and Company", "Responsibilities of Empire", "Trade and Tribute" and the "Conclusion". These serve as a brief introductory essays to prepare readers with the ability to identify themes as explained in the documents.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

This book is valued not solely for the arguments that it presents, but for its structure. The method of combining generous collections of documents with introductory essays helps students of empire to explore any one particular theme widely and deeply. The book concerns itself largely with the happenings in Britain and NOT how the administrative policies are carried out in India. Rather, it was deemed a significant study of the origins of the policies and its theoretical evolution in Britain, which could be contrasted with the actual policies that were conducted in India. One can also be equipped with a background knowledge of the developments in India through 1757 to 1813.

A central argument is that while Company servants did not plan the conquests, they also rarely exercised the restraint in their relations with Indian powers which would have enabled them to avoid war and the acquisition of territory after a successful war. Indeed, the book goes further to argue that the intensity of European rivalries and the weakness of political authority in many parts of eighteenth-century India had provided the opportunity for the first of the Company's conquests.

Marshall firstly argues that the Company managed to maintain territorial power for as long as it did largely due to fortuitous circumstances: the London administration was weak, wanting of personnel, and afraid to engage in dispute with the formidable financial forces of the Company. With regard to governance in India, the Company made the decisions which influenced London; all the latter could do was try and impose standards of administration and Indian welfare. Yet, it always remained possible for the government to overrule the Company as long as it was sufficiently incentivized to do so. This was the case when, by 1813, the British empire in India had grown vastly in political and military commitments, but failed to deliver the expected commercial profits. It was, after all, meant to be a primarily commercial empire.

Marshall attributes the Company’s failure to fulfill its intended financial and commercial responsibilities to ignorance of Indian practices, culture and language, and the incompatibility of national, Company, and stakeholder interests. Shareholders often manipulated the Company for their own purposes, and were deeply split into factions. That the Company practiced gross misgovernance which unnerved many at home is, according to Marshall, undisputable. He also argues that the consensus in London regarding the appropriate response was unanimous, and that rival schools of thought in this area are a product of misled historians. The Company’s failure to reap adequate profits resulted in its downfall at the hands of government dissatisfied on economic and perhaps ethical grounds.

Finally, Marshall concedes that India mattered only to a few elite men, and that by and large Indian debates were sparsely attended. Most of those interested, he argues, were benevolent toward Indians, and while they agreed India was meant to be to Britain’s advantage, they did not mean to cause any suffering. The failure of the Company as a colonial authority was a product of ignorance and imprudence rather than avarice.

Annotated by Michelle Djong/Jennifer Yip