The New Statesman Essay - Before the pith helmets

India's early contacts with the British were benign and mutually beneficial, argues Maria Misra. All

It is a cliche of postwar politics that Britain lost its empire and has not yet found a new role. But the real problem is not so much our lack of a future role as our lack of a "usable" past. As an increasingly multi-ethnic Britain contemplates integration into Europe, questions of historical identity have become acutely relevant. How are a people whose history is so utterly imperial to reconcile their past with a future of multiculturalism and international collaboration?

So far, the competing histories of empire have failed to reconcile past with future. For some, empire is a Kiplingesque tale of a pith- helmeted officer class carrying the white man's burden - something to be proud of. For nostalgics, the empire was regal flummery, purely "ornamental"; slightly embarrassing, but harmless. And for radicals, it was a shameful period of racial arrogance and exploitation. No one, right, left or centre, has come up with a story of Britain's imperial past that could serve as the basis for an inclusive and self-confident national identity.

Should we, then, just forget our imperial past? Probably not. As any Freudian would tell you, repression and denial are never the answer. Rather, we need to overcome our selective memory. The pith helmets and racial arrogance are only part of the story. Empire didn't work, and no one could seriously advocate its return. But it is worth reminding ourselves that there never was just one idea of empire. Long before the Victorian Raj, the British had governed parts of India not as bossy Blimps, but as Anglo-Moguls.

The story of Britain's late 18th-century and early 19th-century empire in India provides an imperial history strikingly different from the standard views. It was a period when Englishmen such as the governor-general Warren Hastings, far from preaching superiority, considered that India's civilisation was as worthy of respect as Britain's.

Hastings was the first governor-general of British India, which, in the 1770s, consisted of the province of Bengal, with its capital in Calcutta, and a couple of enclaves on the east and west coasts. Bengal had fallen under British control as the unintended consequence of the mercenary activities of men such as Robert Clive, who ruled Bengal on behalf of the East India Company. In London, the acquisition of a large chunk of subcontinental territory caused surprise and disquiet. The government decided that it would not do for a commercial company to run a mini-empire unsupervised, and regretfully imposed half-hearted control.

Hastings personified this ambivalence about empire in India. On the one hand, Bengal was so central to the economic life of the City of London that political stability had to be imposed. On the other, he was no imperialist. He had no appetite for expansion, insisting that British dominion over India was an event he hoped never to see. Hastings had already been in India for more than 20 years as a trader-cum-diplomat with the East India Company, speaking Persian and Hindustani and forming close friendships among the Indian trading community. He was appalled at the depredations that Bengal had suffered at the hands of the company under Clive, and decided that the best way of securing British interests was to restore as much of the old Mogul style of government as possible. And so began an extraordinary project of cultural fusion designed to establish a kind of Anglo-Mogul state in Bengal.

Hastings was opposed to any kind of "westernising" policy. He denounced as "wanton tyranny" proposals that English common law be imposed. Bengalis, he argued, should be governed "according to their own ideas, manners and prejudices". He therefore tried to fuse Mogul and British styles of government. He employed Hindu and Muslim clerics to collate and codify the mass of Hindu and Muslim local law, and had the results translated into English. These codes were interpreted by benches of British and "native" judges sitting together.

The ambition to formalise and impose a body of law may have been a classic Enlightenment project of classification and control, but it should not be dismissed as a mere by-product of the drive to dominate. There was more to British intentions than concern for power. Hastings was interested in Indian culture for its own sake, but also as a way of enlightening the west about this relatively unknown civilisation; as he explained, "such studies independent of utility will diffuse a generosity of sentiment". And he succeeded. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, much Indian literature and philosophy was translated into English, French and German, and found its way into the work of poets and thinkers. Goethe's Faust, for instance, was influenced by the Sanskrit play Sakuntala. Some spoke of the exchange as a second Renaissance. Just as the first Renaissance had been based on the rebirth of classical Greek and Roman learning, so the second would rest on the learning of a "lost" Indian civilisation.

The fusion of Indian with British was not only cultural: 18th-century India presented the intriguing possibility that the British themselves would blend into a mixed Creole society. The East India Company took an extremely relaxed view of interracial affairs, at one time offering to pay for any subsequent marriages. Among the elite, it was not unheard of for British men to undergo conversion to Islam, or at least to submit to circumcision, to please Indian wives and mistresses. Up until the 1790s, it was quite common for the offspring of these liaisons to be sent "home" to England to be educated (if boys) or suitably married (if girls). It seems likely that quite a few of these so-called "Eurasians" were absorbed into the British upper classes, even attaining high office. Lord Liverpool, the early 19th-century Tory prime minister, was of "Eurasian" descent.

Within India, Hastings was under no pressure from London to expand British territorial dominion. For a time, it looked as though a kind of Anglo-Mogul elite might emerge, taking its place as just another Mogul successor state. Other rulers were already combining tradition and modernity. In the south-west, the upstart Muslim dynast Tipu Sultan, inspired in part by revolutionary France, aimed to centralise and commercialise Mysore, while respecting indigenous cultural sensitivities. In the west, the Maratha confederacy presaged the birth of a Maharashtran nation state; while in Awadh, to the north of Bengal, the innovative nawabs presided over a cultural and, to some extent, economic renaissance. Contrary to later Victorian myth, India was far from a moribund society, sunk in decadence and decay; it was a vibrant and innovative place into which the British, it seemed, would soon be absorbed, like all foreigners before them.

It would be anachronistic to identify these tolerant 18th-century attitudes to race and culture with those of modern liberal opinion. Hastings and his colleagues were certainly not bien-pensant radicals. Colour prejudice was common, not just among the British. Many Indians, then as now, favoured the "wheaten" complexion (the Indian word for caste is varna, meaning "colour").

But what made Hastings and his peers different from the pith-helmeted empire-builders of the Raj lay in their adherence to a kind of Burkean conservatism, which, with its concern for tradition, its respect for the authority of custom and practice, and hostility to the new, nurtured a kind of 18th-century cultural relativism. As Hastings himself observed: "Bengal is already a great nation and has no need of the supposedly superior wisdom of the English." It may dismay modern liberals, but this tolerant era was to be swept aside by their early Victorian avatars, the utilitarians.

For utilitarians, relativism of any kind was anathema. Good government, to them, consisted in the application of universal principles of law. From this universalising liberalism emerged the more extreme examples of Victorian imperial arrogance; 19th-century liberalism may have been liberating at home, but abroad it was a weapon in the armoury of the cultural imperialist. Without the iron-clad confidence of the ideological zealot, the utilitarian James Mill (father of John Stuart Mill), a man who had never set foot in India, could not have written a multi-volume history of the subcontinent, denouncing manners, culture and practices of which he was almost wholly ignorant. Likewise, it was the liberal polemicist and historian Thomas Macaulay who confidently claimed that a single shelf of books in a good European library was worth more than the entire written corpus of India and Arabia put together.

But the parentage of this 18th-century tolerance is, appropriately, mixed: conservatism must share the credit with the Enlightenment. These early imperialists were devoid of the evangelising fervour that became such an unattractive feature of the Victorian Raj, and the values of the Enlightenment were reflected in their distaste for proselytising and Bible-bashing. Theirs was an era when a rather diffuse "deism" was fashionable: the view that all religions were merely different paths to the same supreme being. Hastings's faith seems to have been of this vague and diffident variety, described by a friend as "a mystic confidence, more Oriental than Christian". Many of the late 18th-century scholar-administrators held similar views. Some took the approach literally, making offerings to the goddess Kali; others took a more detached, academic interest, trying, like modern anthropologists, to understand Hinduism and Islam on their own terms. The open-mindedness was strikingly at odds with the chauvinism and ignorance of the Raj, when it became de rigueur to denounce the supposedly "vile practices" of Hindus and "crazed zealotry" of Islam. But in Hastings's time, many Englishmen compared Christianity with the subcontinental faiths - and found Christianity wanting. William Jones, the Oxford scholar who sat on Bengal's Supreme Court, was not alone in declaring: "I hold the doctrine of the Hindus concerning the future state to be incomparably more rational, more pious and more likely to deter men from vice than the horrid opinions inculcated by Christians on punishments without end."

If Burkean conservatism and Enlightenment deism were the mother and father of 18th-century cultural tolerance, it also had a godparent: India itself. It was a society that had accommodated the diverse mores and practices of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians and Christians. An obvious political model for Hastings was Akbar, the great 16th-century Mogul emperor. Akbar had established the Moguls, a small band of Muslim invaders, as India's governing dynasty by blending and assimilating diverse interests to produce a richly syncretic religious and governmental culture. Hastings, with his Hindu pundits and Muslim clerics complementing the British administrators, was emulating a south-Asian tradition.

It must also be significant that the first-wave imperialists were scholar-traders, sociable and diplomatic out of instinct and interest; they were, after all, in the business of exchange. In the aftershock of the revolution in France, these scholar-traders would be displaced by Kiplingesque soldier-missionaries who colonised not just India, but also our imaginations, to the exclusion of all other images of the Anglo-Indian encounter. In the quarter-century after 1789, the relaxed and accommodating disposition of the late 18th century would become unfashionable, and the British ruling elite would remake itself as a stern and unbending agent of "improvement". In India, an ideological project was launched whose ambition was equalled only by its arrogance. India would be remodelled in the Anglo-liberal style by the application of good law, free markets and moral "uplift". Thus the Victorians brought with them railways and Shakespeare, but not prosperity or democracy. Later, they brought also the dehumanising paraphernalia of scientific racism and cultural imperialism. Not surprisingly, many Indians resented the lessons in modernity delivered to them by the lofty and contemptuous Raj. Hastings and his peers had wanted to understand India, not to change it. They respected the culture and liked the people. Their knowledge and humility towards other cultures might ultimately have been more successful.

The parallels between now and then are thought-provoking. The 1990s were heralded as the decade in which history "ended" - meaning that liberalism had triumphed. A number of unfortunate societies, from post-communist Russia to post-socialist India, were subjected to experiments in liberal "modernity" strikingly similar to those practised by the British empire in the 19th century. But this time, the medicine was administered not by bureaucrats and evangelicals, but by economists and structural adjusters.

Now history has officially resumed, and with it the rancid rhetoric of "clashing civilisations" and cultural superiority. As politicians look for solutions to instability in central Asia and the Middle East, some suggest a return to the protectorates of European imperialism. One has the sinking feeling that it is the overconfident, bullying empire of the 19th century they have in mind, not the more modest and sensitive imperialism of the 18th.

Maria Misra is a fellow and tutor at Keble College, Oxford. She presents An Indian Affair, a three-part series, on Channel 4 at 9pm, Sunday 7, 14 and 21 October