Notions of Nationalism

The formation of nations is not a concept which is too far from public consciousness in the West today; we are certainly aware of the challenges and opportunities associated with ‘nation building’, both in the immediate post-war situation in the 20th century and in the current century. In addition, the question of colonial powers creating nations – all too often portrayed as simply drawing lines on the map in the final rapid dash towards decolonisation – is something that cannot be avoided.

These debates – debates about nationhood and the formation of the raw units which comprise nation-states – have resonance, and they play host to a series of well-established points of view. Either countries can be created – borders drawn, as the stuff of popular history has it, across Africa with the aid of a ruler and pen or in the sands of Mesopotamia by Gertrude Bell with her parasol – or they cannot. Either they are organic entities or they are not.

Perhaps, however, there is a third way to be examined – and one which can prove more than a little stimulating and even enlightening.

It will chronicle the life of Lord William Bentinck, a British soldier, colonial administrator and eventual governor-general of India, whose career – interesting but not stellar, eventful but not world historical – can be said to have engendered the propagation of some of what may be termed notions of nationalism.

A scion of privilege who was in his time accused of harbouring deeply radical views, a man who was feared to have a propensity to sponsor Whig revolutions, Bentinck had a tumultuous time. His early career took place during the Napoleonic Wars, and the essential need to defeat France curtailed some of his efforts towards Whig ideas of ‘political liberty’ on many fronts. He suffered humiliations and setbacks, and had to leave two posts – in Madras and Sicily, respectively – before he was given a final chance and a final charge: the supreme government of India, and the immense powers and responsibilities vested in the office of governor-general. This last posting took place at the end of his life and indeed at the end of an era and the coming of another one – an era of steamships and faster communications and even, perhaps, the ideas of nationalism which lay dormant and unexploited during his early life.

His was a career of many different interests, preoccupations and eventual effects, but one of the most fascinating – and also one of the hardest to examine – is his effect on nationalism and national identity.

Before what could be considered the outbreak of conventional what I term ‘chauvinistic nationalism’ – placed by some historians at the middle and latter parts of the 19th century – ideas of nationhood certainly existed, but they did so in a different form. Nations had coalesced into countries over the centuries, but others were political constructions, something which proved true into the very recent past; those who surveyed the East European peasantry after the First World War, for example, reported finding many people of differing ethnicities and ‘nations’ living within the boundaries of others. Yet other locals disguised or discarded their own national identities and answered simply that, pace Margaret MacMillan’s book The Peacemakers, rather than being Slavs of Germans, Ukrainians, Poles or Russians, they were merely inhabitants of ‘such and such a place’. This fluidity of national identity remains a feature of our world today, where freedom of movement is unparalleled in both technological and political terms, and where large-scale immigration and emigration can cause nations and ideas of nationhood to collide and collude, to combine and (in extreme circumstances) to combust.

This proves that ideas of nationhood and nationality are fundamental not only to the modern world but to how we see ourselves and our surroundings. The subject is essential, and those who had an influence, however slight, in the formation of modern national identities are doubtless worthy of study.

Though Bentinck was a servant of the British throne and its government, he had a small but definite influence on the national identities of those lands he administered under the warrant of the British crown. When he observed Italy and India, two nations which had never been fully united, he felt an urge to see them in that uncommon situation. His ideas were built around some of the axioms of his era – the British Empire, for example, and the fundamental tenets of classical economics – but they were genuinely and independently felt and, I think, sincere.

In Italy, while administering the island of Sicily and acting as first the king’s captain-general and eventually as the de facto dictator, Bentinck saw the sad fact of Italian subjugation and disunity. He possessed and exhibited backwards attitudes towards some Italians – especially many of the Sicilians he sought to govern – but when he began a doomed bid to unite Italy regardless of the aspirations of the far-from-nascent Concert of Europe, he landed at Leghorn in 1814 with banners bearing the message ‘Italian union – national independence’. It is this dual message – of unity and ‘political liberty’ – which was to be the neatest encapsulation of his worldview, which took in his Whig sensibility and a growing Evangelical attitude, as well as a dedication to views that John Rosselli, one of Bentinck’s biographers, termed liberal imperialism, which became a long-term preoccupation of his subject’s political energies in the latter part of his life.

Bentinck attempted, after initial scepticism, to rally the constitutionalists within Sicily and to repel what he saw as the nefarious influence of the queen, Maria Carolina, whom he finally had exiled to Austria-Hungary; and the king, Ferdinand, whom he sought to replace through a kind of vicarious reign of the hereditary prince, Francis. He did much in this way to foster a sense of Sicilian identity, which had been traduced by its royal family who, before they were driven out of the Italian peninsula, greatly preferred the Neapolitan part of their kingdom. He tried to promote an ‘English constitution’ for the island, which he hoped would decrease the power of its nobles and the royal family; and he was greatly inspired by Sicily’s classical history, in addition to its countryside, in the pursuit of that aim. In all of this, however, Bentinck encountered opposition from his political masters at home. He was disliked by Lord Castlereagh, who saw him as a dangerous radical, and who was particular perturbed when Bentinck forced the queen to quit Sicily entirely.

It must be remembered that Bentinck was eventually unsuccessful in Sicily. His constitutionalists – the possessive justified by this stage – failed, too; they could not continue to support his hope for Sicilians’ ‘political liberty’. Bentinck was forced to give up his position by domestic political enemies and eventually lost all influence on the Mediterranean world.

Bentinck was more than a cocktail of influences, however; and one hypothesis – that he was under the spell of Jeremy Bentham and his Utilitarians when he went out to govern India for the second time – deserves to be dismissed rather than included as a serious influence upon Bentinck’s character. But there was some intellectual and moral force behind what Bentinck did; and though they can appear form the requisite historical distance to be little more than random actions, his deeds were not carried out without reason or consideration.

In many ways Bentinck was a product of his own time – its intellectual and philosophical trends as much as its technological capabilities – as well as being something of a ‘forerunner’. The latter is the verdict of C. H. Philips, who edited a volume of Bentinck’s Indian correspondence. It is not an entirely grand status, but so few men can be truly great; Bentinck’s influence was of the second rank, but it is no less worthy of study because of that fact.

Having studied Bentinck a little through the medium of his letters and diaries, specifically with reference to his time in Sicily, I returned to the archive, this time looking at his two terms in India – in Madras and at the head of the supreme government in Calcutta – either side of his time as British envoy in Sicily and commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean.

What I found supplements much of what he did in Sicily and Italy more generally: it presented his role in the articulation and even cultivation of national identity beyond the borders of states and empires.

It seems he was spurred on by truncated Enlightenment values – ‘It not human nature everywhere the same?’ he wrote – and he was led by his ideas to some follies and into many drastic actions. Bentinck failed to promote an ‘English constitution’ in Sicily in 1812, failed to have the Italians rise against Napoleon in 1814, and failed to prevent the Italian nation being divided up after the French defeat.

These initial failures did not ruin him; and nor did they diminish the ideas he sought to propagate. In many ways his second term in India represented the most serious opportunity for the implementation of his beliefs, and therefore the clearest crystallisation of that his worldview actually meant. After his failures and ignominious dismissals, Bentinck wished to use his new position both to act in the interests of the British elites and to give the Indian people he ruled a sense of their own importance. He called this his aspiration to ‘found British greatness on Indian happiness’. In this as in so many other aspects of his life, it seems more than mere rhetoric; he genuinely believed it; and in office he sought to implement this new direction in British policy towards the most valuable possession in its empire.

The question of India’s national identity is a difficult and complex one. As later as the 1930s, Winston Churchill could say, and with no small amount of justification, that ‘India is an abstraction … India is no more a political personality than Europe. India is a geographical term. It is no more a united nation than the Equator.’ In some ways Churchill was right, as the bulk of what was once British India is now spread across three nations – Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India itself. It cannot therefore be stated conclusively that Bentinck’s ambitions and aspirations succeeded in affecting British attitudes to that colony and to the nature of its nationhood. As in Sicily, and in Italy more broadly, he was not a true pioneer (as the idea of Indian nationhood had been thought of and conjugated before his time) and he was not a true revolutionary; but his personal beliefs and actions in government had some effect on wider perceptions.

In India, eager to clear his name after his previous failures, Bentinck was initially conservative, but he did have a strong sense of Indian national identity, and did his best to foster things like greater racial equality, as well as banning practices – like the institution of sati, in which a widow threw herself, or was thrown, on to her husband’s funeral pyre – which he thought barbaric. This was interventionist policy, but it was not entirely paternalist in nature. He spent time with leading Indians, as well as Anglo-Indians, who were in some cases a little-understood minority. And though he did not usher in a great age of toleration, such things as his inclusion of Indians in official functions helped to normalise an interchange between the governing and the governed; it laid the foundations for cooperation, not conflict; it helped to institute the beginnings of a more tolerant and less monolithic system of government.

Bentinck was constantly aware of what he termed the ‘bad’ British Empire, and declared a desire to make Indian happiness a serious matter of administration. His view of the British Empire was an interesting one which requires elucidation. Bentinck had by this time witnessed the destruction of the Italian national idea; it had been crushed, he thought, by the Concert of Europe and the attempt by its leading lights, notably Metternich, to secure Italian territories in the interests of Europe’s empires. Bentinck saw this as nothing less than madness; he saw it as a tragedy and as an example of hypocrisy, not least since the same powers which divided Europe among themselves had previously fought under the pretence of defeating French imperialism and protecting the rights of small states.

Because of this bitter experience, Bentinck was not entirely reconciled to the idea of empire in the first place; and what he saw of the British rule in India – which he perceived to be a small, closed-off world, isolated from the very people in whose interests the British claimed to be governing – did not alter this view and these misgivings.

At the same time, however, Bentinck was aware of how the British could use their advantages and their increased capacities to help India and its inhabitants. He thought these two nations could work together for mutual benefit, with Britain providing the benefits of strong, stable government, economic sophistication and technological advancement, and India providing the raw, untapped energy of a continent which contained many millions of people, each of whom could assist in their own betterment and the betterment of the British Empire as a whole.

That is not to say that Bentinck was an entirely egalitarian administrator – and he shared many of the assumptions of those of his era which many in the 21st century would doubtless find outdated and even distasteful – but he was at least aware of the potential of India; his understanding of economics does not seem especially sophisticated, but he did seem to have taken to heart the notion that, under a classical economic understanding, India could be the home to vast riches and tremendous reserves of potential. The economic aspect was not the only feature of his imperialist vision, and nor was it the most important; but it can be seen to rationalise the process of colonisation as a mutually beneficial exercise, which could enrich both British and Indians and assist the latter in their political, cultural, economic and moral development. When he used the image of himself, as governor-general, representing the ‘chief agent’ of ‘a great estate’ he was not just co-opting the language of his unsuccessful time in property management and investment in Great Britain; he was giving voice to a real sense that India could develop itself, and that the new Indian nation, aided by the British and borne aloft by its own efforts, could become a truly developed, even a genuinely ‘civilised’, place.

This was an atypical assumption for a colonialist of that period; and despite the fact of his being an imperialist at all, it does seem that he had more than a passing interest in the lot of Indians and their lives. Bentinck’s personal habits as governor-general were modest; in fact, he was likened to a ‘Pennsylvania Quaker’ by one in his retinue. But this antiquated, simplistic air does not mean that he was not interested either in the pace of technological change and its applicability to the Indian situation. Bentinck was an enthusiast for development, and that manifested itself in the introduction of steamships and improvements in infrastructure, both of which benefitted both the British colonial establishment and – though perhaps tangentially – the people of India itself.

More than that, Bentinck helped to cultivate a notion of Indian identity beyond that of being either subject to British rule or the denizens of states permitted to exist under British direction. He debated with other statesmen the ideal languages to teach to Indians in schools; the question concerned which of India’s ancient languages and cultures most resembled the classical influences which had provided much of the scholarly backing for Britain’s leaders and, it was thought, its greatness. This sort of involvement with and respect for Indian culture is something which colonial leaders may be expected to ignore; and since Bentinck has been portrayed in some corners as an ogre – for example, it is incorrectly suggested that he wished to demolish the Taj Mahal in order to profit from its marble – this is perhaps even more surprising in that it bore all the hallmarks of his involvement.

Like in Sicily, he associated with some of the local potentiaries, for example Ram Mohan Roy; and he made personal and public strides towards racial equality, and acted in a way which was far divorced from some of the more dramatically interventionist policies adopted by earlier British officials in India; Macaulay’s Minute on Indian Education, which was concurrent to Bentinck’s reforms in that area, was seen by Rosselli, and other historians of Bentinck and his era, as a triumph of rhetoric over the bare facts of government policy. The disdain for aspects of Indian culture which can be inferred from that document was not Bentinck’s, and its tone cannot be taken to be symptomatic or even descriptive of his approach to governing India and its subject peoples.

A final aspect of Bentinck’s immediate effect on the national identity and sense of nationhood of the countries where he worked was the nature of his service. It was affected by his Whig principles, certainly, and his work was impressed with his Enlightenment ideas of the universality of humanity and the value of those who found themselves being governed rather than in positions of power. All of this, as well as a keen sense of ‘political liberty’, meant that Bentinck was more than an average British colonial administrator. But he was not entirely exceptional, too. And this holds something of his interest. The very fact that he was not a visionary, that he did not create anything truly pioneering or long-lasting, and that he was not in any way an especially talented governor – these facts are also interesting when contemplating Bentinck’s place in history.

Bentinck was not the most effective or brilliant governor to hold office in British India; he was not the most intellectually prodigious; he was not, to be reductive, particularly special. Bentinck was at the end of his term a tired old man, who had learnt the lessons of his unsuccessful appointments and who ruled with prudence and some caution – unlike in Madras, he did not quarrel so openly with the East India Company’s Court of Directors, which had proven so disastrous in his first gubernatorial posting. He was also in many ways simply getting on with the job and doing his private, personal best. This does not diminish him as a person and a historical actor, but rather, it provides an insight into how even workmanlike actions can have far-reaching historical consequences.

Simply battling the bureaucracy of the Indian Civil Service under British rule was its own challenge; it generated enough paper to keep the old man working hard without ever developing high-flown ideas about Indian nationhood and the rights of colonial subjects. The climate was unhealthy and the work was hard. The fact that Bentinck simply persevered is in itself something of an achievement. Through it all a sense of genuine purpose appears to have dictated his actions. Though the aims he subscribed to were ill-defined, they still manifested themselves in the ways described above: a deliberate and technical attempt to aid Indian development through the introduction of British expertise; an attempt to become less combative with regard to the wishes of native leaders and their subjects; and a desire both to appreciate the wishes of the Indians subject to British rule and to create a kind of Indian identity, which included the benisons of studying the continent’s history, culture and languages.

There is something of value in all of this, it seems.