There is no stranger practice in history than the ancient Indian cult of Thuggee. After years of training in a temple dedicated to the goddess Kali the Destroyer, a Thug would sit down on one of the major highways of northern India and watch for a suitable traveling party to pass. After joining them for a week or two of charming away their natural suspicions, he’d wait until the place and portents were auspicious. Then, when least expected, he’d fold a silver rupee into a long, silk handkerchief, bring his knee into the small of a new friend’s back, and strangle him. After apprentices carefully cut up and secretly buried the corpse, Thug and victim would vanish without a trace.
It’s easy to see how the proper middle class shopkeepers of Great Britain assumed a moral ascendancy over the subjects of their empire. Cetshwayo, the King of the Zulus, murdered thousands of his own every year in the most hideous—and hideously careless—manner and maintained an execution ground with the bones of 125,000 victims. Indians threw widows onto funeral pyres, Maori ate their criminals, Fijians buried their elders alive instead of feeding them, and Chinese tossed baby girls onto trash heaps. On every continent, indiscriminate massacre was a regular feature of warfare, long before the advent of bombers, machine guns, and Zyklon B.
The English had their own string of peccadillos, of course, not to mention their part in the bestiality of all those medieval Europeans wars. But the myth of their ending the slave trade had replaced the reality that they’d already milked every drop of profit out of it. Any guilt they might have felt over their treatment of the Scots and Irish had been overwhelmed by pride in the Scots and Irish who provided most of the rock stars in their glamorous, scarlet-coated armies. And from the loftiest heights, the Anglican Church and the orators of Parliament had somehow conceived that a people who’d won their freedom from an ancient royal despotism could best help the world by enslaving it.
But at its core, the British Raj was a fraud, an enormous con game, and nowhere was this more evident than in India. One glance at the teeming streets of modern Mumbai shows that the British never could have invaded the subcontinent, any more than the Japanese who failed so miserably (and viciously) in China. And the British didn’t invade, at least not in the sense of a Blitzkrieg or an Operation Overlord. More than a century passed between their arrival and the crowning of Victoria as Empress of India. A minor trade agreement here, a dandy little skirmish there, a treaty of protection for this Maharajah, a lavish gift of friendship for that Nabob. And backing all the greed and hyperactivity, two armies, one public, the other private, but both of them 80% Indian.
So in the end, it was the Indians who invaded India, with a smattering of Europeans leaping on to hog the credit and skim off the profit. And that profit was enormous. Pre-British India was one of the richest countries in history, with a Mughal Emperor and more than 600 minor kings and potentates, all of them fabulously wealthy. Robert Clive, one of the early British adventurers, took home a mere 400 million Sterling and publicly congratulated himself on his restraint—but still had to explain to a hostile parliamentary committee why he was suddenly the richest man in England.
The power of the Raj in India was seriously tested just twice. In 1857, unimaginable British bungling and insensitivity led to the Indian Mutiny. Those loyal native troops and passive servants went berserk and slaughtered every European man, woman, and child they could lay their hands on. The British, as if freed from the bonds of their civility, responded in kind. One traveler, passing a field outside Delhi, spotted 1,000 Indian soldiers milling around and asked what they were doing there. His companion explained that they were awaiting trial, conviction, and hanging, in no particular order.
It took two years and hundreds of thousands of deaths before calm was restored. The British finally made their Empire official, and the Indians settled into glum acceptance, but the relationship between the two peoples never recovered. The British walled themselves up in their compounds and collected their rents. The Indians spun the Memsahib’s room fans and persevered from one famine to the next.
The second test came in the person of Mohandas Gandhi, and this time, the Raj broke down. At first, the Mahatma concerned himself with indigent rights and tolerated the British presence—after all, they had their uses, building roads and railroads and creating employment. But when Gandhi-ji realized just how myopic and fossilized the regime had grown, he decided the British had to go. He and his non-violent movement famously got them to exit voluntarily by turning their own civility and sense of fairness against them.
Which is maybe the strangest thing of all about the British Raj. The loss of India was in effect the end of the British Empire. And all it took to terminate three centuries of worldwide expansion by one of the greatest military and industrial powers in history was one very smart, determined, and, above all, patient old man in a homespun dhoti.