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Revenue and Reform: The Indian Problem in British Politics, 1757-1773.

This latest work of scholarship from Huw Bowen is a milestone in imperial history. This new book provides scholars and students of imperial history with an innovative synthesis of British politics and British activity in India in the period from Plassey to the passage of the Regulating Act. Bowen's lively style and excellent presentation have made a complicated story easier to understand as the author skilfully guides us through the maze of India House and the House of Commons.

Students of the period have had to manage with Lucy Sutherland's magnum opus and have been loathe to delve into India House records themselves or to tackle the question of perceptions of empire. Now, Bowen has managed to do both for us but in such a way that it is now a simpler task to follow single threads of the story without becoming tangled in the larger tapestry. There is something in this book for everyone. Students of other parts of the empire -- for instance -- Quebec, will see some remarkable similarities to the problems here in the 1760s. In fact, along with Philip Lawson's Imperial Challenge, we now have two major parts of the empire covered in this new style which brings high politics back into the study of empire. Both Lawson and Bowen have seen fit to include economic issues as part of their respective studies but Bowen shows clearly that finances and not visions of empire were what concerned politicians and impacted on all their decisions about India.

This book is highly organized and therefore the arguments put forward and the story itself, which of necessity goes back and forwards on a number of occasions, is still remarkably easy to follow. This latest work has made the East India Company, problems of empire in India, general attitudes towards India, and political will all much clearer than before. In doing so Bowen has re-opened the Pandora's box of empire and with any luck he will continue to mine it for treasures. By the end of the book one is left with a sense of regret that the next instalment is not yet in the shops. Any work which leaves the reader with a keen appetite for more is a great success.

It is clear from the structure and from the tightly knit synthesis presented to the reader that this work goes far beyond the research of a doctoral dissertation. Its approach, organization, and materials used have created a work which will be of lasting interest and significance in the study of imperial history. This can but encourage the nucleus of new imperial historians working on both sides of the Atlantic. With such a difficult topic to cover, Bowen manages to confine himself to a few well chosen, richly detailed examples. There is therefore never any sense of being overwhelmed. In a study of the East India Company and Parliament in the 1760s, this is no mean feat.

The introductory chapter sets the tone for the book. Bowen's focus is on how the British came to terms with the territorial acquisitions of the East India Company. Through a wide range of documentation Bowen lets us see the changing attitudes of the Company itself, Parliament, the press and general public. His interest lies in how domestic politics affected the Company operations at home and in India. Students of Hanoverian history will find much that is familiar here but the examples drawn from India will be new to them.

The study begins with a highly satisfactory narrative of the Company and Clive after the Battle of Plassey. The focus then shifts to domestic perceptions of empire in general and then to India in particular. Perceptions of empire have always been troublesome but are handled beautifully here by a skilful interweaving of sources and finally an explanation of how perceptions were shaped. India was seen as a great potential source of wealth but an area which would never usurp America in the hearts and minds of the British. Few men had a vision of empire at all and those who did found it hard to convince anyone that India should be part of it. Bowen points out that this preoccupation with seeing India as a place from which to extract revenue to help pay the very worrisome national debt meant that politicians viewed India from within a very narrow perspective and were loathe to pass legislation which would involve the Crown and ministry in Indian affairs. There was no desire among the ruling class to think of India as part of Britain and by avoiding legislation guaranteed to help the East India Company this attitude could be maintained.

This dithering of course also had to do with the political instability of the period and we can find similar lack of necessary legislation for Quebec, in the 1760s. It was not until North that the problems of Quebec, America, and India were at least decisively tackled and temporarily resolved.

The chapters which cover policy making within the East India Company are excellent. The inside track on how policy was made, motivations and strengths and weaknesses of the company are all laid out in full view. Bowen concludes that one reason it could not devote as much time as necessary to events in India was because of the many internal troubles in London.

The middle chapters offer a discussion of the negative effect to the company caused by their acceptance of the Diwani and by the first parliamentary inquiry under Chatman. There is a fascinating picture of the tug-of-war between the General Court and the Ministry, one which would be played out again in 1772-73. As it does on a number of occasions the study switches between the General Court and parliament, examining the key players, the administrative organization, and offering a birds-eye view of how each crisis affected their positions of strenght relative to one another.

Chapters six to eight analyze the company's attempts to reform its operations in India and the work of the General Court at home. For a variety of reasons these attempts are found to be generally unsuccessful. Bowen takes some time here to show how vital the support of the ministry was to successful reform and gives two exceptional examples of this. There is also a good attempt here to bring India and its trade back into the international trading sphere by examining the problems of the tea trade and the political problems this posed for the English ministry.

The final chapters are a masterful account of the changing mood of the North ministry and some timely examples of the King's interventions in the matter of the East India Company. A wonderful discussion follows of the inner workings and motivations of the Select and Secret committees and the readings of the Regulating Bill in the House. These chapters on high politics provide a framework for students of other parts of the empire as well. The incredible speed of decision making in 1772-73, the inability of the Rockingham opposition to mount a successful attack even in the Lords, and the inability of the General Court to stop events are all well covered.

All in all, it is a complicated story brought to life by Bowen in a work that far exceeds the scope of any work to date on the East India Company, parliament and the question of empire. Not only is this a must for students of imperial and British history but students of eighteenth-century Quebec would also do well to consult it.
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Author:Kerr, Linda
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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