Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Imperial Connections

Book Cover

Book Title

Imperial Connections: India in the Indian Ocean Arena, 1860-1920. Berkeley, CA.: University of California Press, 2007


Metcalf, Thomas R.


This book aims to provide a view of the British Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from an Indian perspective, using the “Indian Ocean Arena” as a geographical reference point for navigation. Metcalf argues that India lay at the heart of Britain’s vast overseas empire, representing a centre of order and laying the institutional and legal frameworks for later, smaller colonies—in other words, its contributions to the British Empire cannot be underestimated. Apart from examining the ways in which the India of the Raj shaped other British colonies, the author also considers the profound influences colonialism and rapid globalization had on Indian society and cultural identity. The book ends with a discussion of the reasons for the decline of what Metcalf calls an “Indian-centered sub-imperial system.”

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

Metcalf devotes the bulk of his discussion to the 1890-1920 period. This, according to him, was the peak of the Indian-centered colonial system. It was during this period that India successfully reaped the full benefits of strong membership in an international community, and extended its influence in profound ways to other British colonies—for instance, the Malay states. Metcalf does not only focus on Indians in their home country; overseas settlements—most notably those in East Africa— comprising Indians who left India in pursuit of work or economic opportunities, willingly or otherwise, also enjoy much attention.

Metcalf also takes a thematic rather than chronological or narrative approach: they consider the institutions of colonial governance; the construction of cultural identities among colonial peoples; the role of the Indian Army and Indian colonial police forces in securing the British Empire; and case studies of Natal’s agencies in India and the transformation of East Africa into an “extension” of India. “India” is thus portrayed as a truly international entity.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

In his discussion, Metcalf points out that colonies did not exist in isolation from each other, and that their relationship with the metropolis was not a one-way affair. It is true that Britain fundamentally changed the ways in which its colonies functioned; but colonial India saw its institutional and legal structures, as well as its cultural practices, replicated or imitated elsewhere all over the world. Colonies could affect each other as profoundly as colonizers did. The authors argue, therefore, that empires were intricate webs in which metropolis and all colonies influenced each other in various ways. Ironically, the British Empire revolved around India: “the Raj made the British Empire possible”, and the Indians, serving as civil servants, police officers, or soldiers, were deployed as agents of British colonialism to play their part in conquest.

Interestingly, Metcalf also points out that empire represented a double-edged sword for the Indians, providing opportunity while threatening discrimination. Many Indians in fact swore loyalty to the British Crown, accepting empire as the framework of their lives and recognizing that they had benefited from colonial policies in areas such as education. Indian discontentment with British rule was not always equated with a desire for independence, an association most readers make too quickly; rather, Indians wanted to become full citizens of empire. Colonialism was tolerable, even desired, if the opportunities it represented could be tapped on. It was only when such expectations were disappointed by events such as the 1919 Amritsar Massacre that the Indians grew disillusioned with empire, and began to agitate for independence and statehood. Certainly, Metcalf spends considerable time pondering the question of whether Indians ultimately benefited from the colonial experience. While they suffered many injustices, he concludes that colonialism also opened doors which otherwise would always have been closed.

The book ends with the crumbling of first Indian prominence in the British Empire, and then the Empire itself. Indian labor in various fields had been indispensable in the beginning stages of British colonialism, but they were rapidly outliving their purposes. Restrictions on Indian migration to other colonies, among other policy reversals, cut loose the ties India had enjoyed with other British colonies, isolating it and limiting its contact with and influence on them. The Great Depression and World War II sealed the fate of the British Empire, and with it, the domination of India amongst similarly colonized territories.

Annotated by Jennifer Yip