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A Celebration Of Empire

Amar Farooqui

By Archibald B. Spens
Routledge, New Delhi, 2014, pp. xlii 251, Rs. 750.00


This is a reprint of a work originally published a century ago (Stanley Paul, London, 1913; Dodd, Mead, New York, 1914). Although it has been published as part of the National Archives of India (NAI) series ‘Archives in India: Historical Reprints’, it does not seem to have had any direct or indirect connection with the NAI. Its inclusion in the series is therefore somewhat intriguing. Rather unhelpfully, no details are provided about the earlier edition, and the reader is left to undertake this task with the help of the internet or by other means. However that still leaves unexplained the decision to include in this series a work of negligible intrinsic worth. In his introduction to the new edition, Peter Robb begins by confessing that he was ‘surprised when I heard that the National Archives of India and Routledge Publishers wanted to reprint’ the book (p. ix). Robb, saddled as he is with the responsibility of finding an adequate justification for reissuing what is ‘in many ways a disagreeable text, in its casual assumptions of British superiority...’ (p. ix), utilizes this opportunity to reflect on why it might be worthwhile to ‘read Spens today?’ (p .xxix). His main argument is that colonialism is only one among several forms of dominance, and the independent nationstate is not necessarily egalitarian. We need not therefore be too critical of Spens’s celebration of empire or his contempt, generally, for Indians. He represents the ‘typical middle ground’ of British attitudes towards India during the high noon of empire. In fact, Spens is representative of the smug and opinionated turn-of-the-century British traveller seeking to strengthen belief in the historical destiny of empire by personally confirming the inferiority of its Indian subjects. This is not a voyage of discovery. As he concludes his journey, towards the end of March 1913, Spens seems to know almost as much about India as he did when he disembarked at Bombay in the last week of December 1912. He is satisfied that his ‘impressions’, as recorded in this travelogue in the form of a diary, conform exactly to his mental image of the country and its people. We learn very little about the places he visits, and condescendingly talks about: Ambala, Khyber Pass, Peshawar, Agra, Benaras, Lucknow, Kanpur, Delhi, Gwalior, Jaipur, Bombay. Except for the Taj, which takes his breath away, he finds almost nothing worth admiring. Spens is merely verifying for himself the ...

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