The Real Truth About the Raj
For the first time in a generation the world has witnessed the coronation of a British monarch. King Charles iii was crowned in a ceremony filled with ancient symbols and trappings of a past age of imperialism. Yet it has become intellectually fashionable to label the monarchy an archaic institution of slavery, colonialism and racism. Even King Charles himself has apologized for Britain’s history.
At the center of this trend is the Raj: Britain’s rule in India. It has been 75 years since British rule in India ended. King Charles’s grandfather, King George vi, was the last emperor of India. Many modern historians from India, and Britain, have been revising the narrative of British rule from a positive force to an evil regime akin to the Third Reich.
“Is there anything good to be said of British rule over India?” wrote Tirthankar Roy at the Spectator. “The verdict of many politicians, museum curators, tv presenters and even journalists in India is clear: The Raj existed only to exploit and oppress. It caused poverty and famine in the East and made the Western world richer. The writer and politician Shashi Tharoor in a best-selling book Inglorious Empire blames the Raj for ‘depredation,’ ‘loot,’ ‘rapaciousness,’ ‘brutality’ and ‘plunder.’ He is far from alone in that withering verdict: Social media posts spread similar messages with religious zeal.”
What is the truth about the Raj? Was the Raj an evil, imperialistic enterprise that exploited India to the detriment of its inhabitants? Were there any positive aspects of British rule? Revising the Raj is not only an attempt to rewrite the facts of history but also to blot out an inspiring truth from the Bible about the future.
Man’s Nature on Display
One of the most profound lessons from the history of the Raj is the consistency of human nature. No matter the color of a person’s skin, or their country of origin, the traits of human nature are on full display. When reviewing history, it is important to establish this basic point.
The Bible describes human nature as vain, selfish, greedy, deceptive and motivated by self-interest (Galatians 5:19-21; Jeremiah 17:9). Were these traits present in the British Empire? Absolutely. Were these traits present in India before the British arrived? Absolutely. This is not a question of race; it is the natural state of mankind, subject to the pulls of the god of this world (Ephesians 2:2). (Read our free booklet Human Nature: What Is It? to learn more about man’s habitual nature.)
The British Empire’s rise to power was actually the fulfillment of Bible prophecy. God promised that the family of Abraham would be given the blessings of national power and wealth. (You can prove this for yourself in Herbert W. Armstrong’s book The United States and Britain in Prophecy.) But God wanted to see what they would do after receiving the blessings. Sadly, the empire rejected God—that is the path of human nature (Romans 8:7). The Bible says the ways of man lead to death (Proverbs 14:12). That is why every civilization, even the mighty British Empire, declines and falls.
What makes the British Empire unique is not the absence of evil human nature, but the presence of an uplifting effect on its areas of influence. Despite wrongdoings and mistakes, something allowed the British to have a positive impact on the world. When compared to other European empires who left their colonies desolate and backward, it is clear Britain’s impact was far different.
Changing the Subcontinent
When the Europeans first began trading in India, the subcontinent was divided into around 550 different kingdoms. There were 200 languages, a rigid caste system, different religions, and generations of wars between the tribes and marauding invaders.
At first, Britain’s presence in India was purely commercial, represented by the British East India Company, founded in 1600 by Queen Elizabeth i. The company established posts and factories in India for spices, tea, cotton and textiles. Eventually the East India Company would become the most powerful monopoly in history, employing a private army of 260,000 soldiers who fought against European competitors and Indian rivals. This company controlled a large section of India after fighting many wars with France. In 1784, William Pitt and Parliament passed the “India Act,” which brought the company, and India, under formal control of the British government.
While the British never intended to build an empire in India, after defeating Napoleon in 1815 a new generation of leadership who had an empire vision took charge. These men believed Britain’s powerful position gave them the obligation to improve the lives of the people they ruled. In the early 19th century, a string of talented and dedicated reformers began the process of change inside India: Mountstuart Elphinstone, Sir Thomas Munroe, Sir Charles Metcalfe, Francis Rawdon-Hastings, Lord William Bentinck and Sir William Sleeman. These men weren’t without faults, but their combined efforts transformed a fractured mosaic of peoples into one political entity—a feat not achieved for millenniums.
Lord Bentinck, governor-general of India, began a series of essential changes in 1828. Bentinck had declared that “British greatness should be founded upon Indian happiness.” He reformed the civil service and government structure to transform a deficit of a million pounds to a surplus of over a million pounds. “The most famous of Bentinck’s reforms was the abolition of the suttee or, more properly, sati,” wrote Alfred Leroy Burt in The Evolution of the British Empire and Commonwealth. “This immolation of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands was a common but by no means universal Hindu rite that was sanctioned by immemorial custom, having been practiced in India for more than 2,000 years, and was commended by authoritative scriptures.” According to official statistics, between 1813 and 1829, there were 7,941 widows burned to death with their husbands’ bodies.
Then there was the ending of the thuggee, from which we get the word “thug.” It was a form of ritualistic murder and thievery in which travelers were strangled and buried as a sacrifice to the goddess Kali. It is recorded that a couple of men confessed to murdering over 700 people this way. Sir William Sleeman was responsible for its eradication.
Other important reforms included the building of railways and telegraph stations, digging irrigation canals from the Ganges to stop perpetual famines (although they did happen again in 1876 and 1899). Universities were built in Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. The lower members of the caste system, such as the “untouchables,” were finally given a chance at improving their lives. The infrastructure reforms transformed the country. “By the 1880s, the British had invested $270 million pounds in India, not much less than one fifth of their entire investment overseas,” writes Niall Ferguson in Empire. “The British increased the area of irrigated land by a factor of eight. … They created an Indian coal industry from scratch, which by 1914, produced nearly 16 million tons a year.” While not all of these improvements translated to economic riches for Indians, it did modernize the land.
The most important, and perhaps the most controversial to modern historians, was the decision to universally teach the English language and Western philosophy instead of the Oriental traditions. This is now known as Macaulayism, named after Lord Thomas Macaulay, who was on the governor-general’s counsel and shaped the policy. While some of his comments are perceived negatively today, Macaulay’s vision was to give the people of India what Britain had: liberty and prosperity. He believed if the people of India wanted self-government and political freedom, then that would be “the proudest day in English history.”
This is what happened in 1947. A region of over 500 kingdoms with 200 languages was now one nation with modern institutions and the chance to become a major force in geopolitics.
While the British Raj was far from perfect, there would be no modern state of India without the different reforms of the Raj. This pattern was followed throughout the empire. Beyond contrasting the positive and negative attributes of the Raj, there is a more important lesson and truth to take away from this history.
Why This History Matters
The British Empire is an example of how a reforming, civilizing force can actually uplift the world. It was an empire filled with human nature that made some terrible mistakes. The amazing aspect, however, is that it had a positive impact despite the imperfect nature of man. What is the reason for this unique phenomenon?
The fact is, the British people had some truth from the Bible that guided their decisions. God used this to teach us a lesson about the good news of the coming Kingdom of God! The Bible teaches that very soon Jesus Christ is going to establish the God Family Empire on this Earth. Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry wrote in “The Glory of Empire”:
In fact, if you understand the gospel that Jesus Christ brought to Earth—advance news from God the Father of the soon-coming Kingdom of God—it was at its heart an imperialistic message! The Kingdom of God could very accurately be called the God Family Empire!
God has a plan to lift human life away from barbarism and savagery toward civilization and excellence. He has a strategy to spread just laws and right morals. He intends to fulfill the noble purpose of fostering the right kind of civilization for the benefit of the whole world!
The Kingdom of God is going to establish an empire that will civilize the entire world away from the barbarism of human nature to the nature of God! Every nation and people, including Britain and India, will need to be reeducated by the God Family. There is an inspiring parallel in Macaulay wanting to give the people of the empire the blessings Britain had. In a very limited way, this is a small type of what God is offering all of mankind. The almighty, everlasting, all-powerful God wants to give every human exactly what He has! God wants you and I to become His children—to become God!
God’s master plan will use a family empire of perfect, righteous God beings to bestow upon mankind the blessings of joy, unity and abundance—if they want it. The British Empire is merely a feeble shadow of what God has planned for humanity.
Those who seek to revise history are actually working to blot out this truth. 2 Kings 14:27 says that in our time the “name of Israel” would nearly be blotted out. Revising this history is attacking the inspiring God Family Empire vision contained in the Bible! By blotting out the past, it is actually blotting out the future.