Inglorious Empire

What the British Did to India

March 2017 9781849048088 296pp
EU Customers


In the eighteenth century, India’s share of the world economy was as large as Europe’s. By 1947, after two centuries of British rule, it had decreased six-fold. Beyond conquest and deception, the Empire blew rebels from cannon, massacred unarmed protesters, entrenched institutionalised racism, and caused millions to die from starvation.

British imperialism justified itself as enlightened despotism for the benefit of the governed, but Shashi Tharoor takes on and demolishes this position, demonstrating how every supposed imperial ‘gift’ – from the railways to the rule of law – was designed in Britain’s interests alone. He goes on to show how Britain’s Industrial Revolution was founded on India’s deindustrialisation, and the destruction of its textile industry.

In this bold and incisive reassessment of colonialism, Tharoor exposes to devastating effect the inglorious reality of Britain’s stained Indian legacy.

[Available in India under the title An Era of Darkness, published by Aleph Books]

Table of contents


1. The Looting of India

2. Did the British Give India Political Unity?

3. Democracy, the Press, the Parliamentary System and the Rule of Law

4. Divide Et Impera

5. The Myth of Enlightened Despotism

6. The Remaining Case for Empire

7. The (Im)Balance Sheet: A Coda

8. The Messy Afterlife of Colonialism

Notes and References


‘Tharoor convincingly demolishes some of the more persistent myths about Britain’s supposedly civilising mission in India … [he] charts the destruction of pre-colonial systems of government by the British and their ubiquitous ledgers and rule books … The statistics are worth repeating.’ — Victor Mallet, Financial Times

‘[Inglorious Empire] seethes with anger and resentment … [it] lays out in chillingly plain prose how the British empire plundered India’s resources and riches and left the country broken.’ — The Guardian, ‘Five Indispensable Books on Race Issues’

‘A necessary antidote to the romantic falsehood that the British civilized and modernized India, when in fact they built railways, roads and an administrative structure for the sole purpose of efficiently carrying their loot to Indian ports.’ — The New York Times

Inglorious Empire both reiterates long­-standing, persuasive and well­-founded critiques of the British Raj’s countless exploitative activities and the damage done under colonialism, and expresses [Tharoor’s] surprise and disappointment that such basic points still need to be made anew today. Chapter by chapter, the book convincingly demolishes the nostalgic, self­-serving arguments voiced by imperial apologists.’ — Times Literary Supplement

‘Inglorious Empire is a timely reminder of the need to start teaching unromanticised colonial history in British schools. A welcome antidote to the nauseating righteousness and condescension pedalled by Niall Ferguson in his 2003 book Empire.‘ — The Irish Times

‘His writing is a delight and he seldom misses his target … Tharoor should be applauded for tackling an impossibly contentious subject … he deserves to be read. Indians are not the only ones who need reminding that empire has a lot to answer for.’ — Literary Review

‘Remarkable … The book is savagely critical of 200 years of the British in India. It makes very uncomfortable reading for Brits.’ — Matt Ridley, The Times

‘By the time the British left, India’s share of global GDP had sunk to just over 3 per cent. The reason for this headlong decline was simple, Tharoor argues: India was governed strictly for the benefit of Britain. The rise of industrial Britain was financed by the depredations of the Raj. The soldiers of the East India Company smashed the handlooms of the Bengal weavers, whose delicate silks and muslins were prized all over Europe.’ — London Review of Books

‘I had read only a few pages of Inglorious Empire before I thought, “What a wonderful book this would be to teach from.” It’s witty and fast-paced, the what-ifs and what-might-have-beens set up to provoke discussion. And the author’s digressions, sometimes more enthralling than the topic under discussion, raise important questions about who he is [and] the country that has made him.’ — Robin Jeffrey, Inside Story

‘With his polemics and his book, Tharoor may have created a resurgence of interest in this 200-year period of Indian history.’ — Nilanjana Roy, Financial Times

‘Those Brits who speak confidently about how Britain’s “historical and cultural ties” to India will make it easy to strike a great new trade deal should read Mr Tharoor’s book. It would help them to see the world through the eyes of the … countries once colonised or defeated by Britain.’ — Gideon Rachman, Financial Times

‘Erudite and beautifully written . . . page after page of biting critique.’—BBC History Magazine

‘[M]agnificent.’ — Tribune

‘Ferocious and astonishing. Essential for a Britain lost in sepia fantasies about its past, Inglorious Empire is history at its clearest and cutting best.’ — Ben Judah, author of This is London

‘Rare indeed is it to come across history that is so readable and so persuasive.’ — Amitav Ghosh

‘Tharoor’s impassioned polemic slices straight to the heart of the darkness that drives all empires. Forceful, persuasive and blunt, he demolishes Raj nostalgia, laying bare the grim, and high, cost of the British Empire for its former subjects. An essential read.’ — Nilanjana Roy, Financial Times

‘Eloquent … a well-written riposte to those texts that celebrate empire as a supposed “force for good”.’ — BBC World Histories

‘Tharoor’s book – arising from a contentious Oxford Union debate in 2015 where he proposed the motion “Britain owes reparations to her former colonies” – should keep the home fires burning, so to speak, both in India and in Britain. … He makes a persuasive case, with telling examples.’ — History Today

‘A brilliant work . . . distinguished among this literature in its manner of presentation and dazzling arguments . . . an eye-opener and a valuable source of reference for students and others to understand India’s experience under British colonialism.’ — Insight Turkey

‘Tharoor has built an impressive argument against colonial rule and the book is a masterpiece in terms of explaining the subcontinent’s experience as a British colony.’ — Global Village Space

‘Well researched . . . this book is an extremely useful corrective to nostalgic imperial history and well worth reading.’ — Chartist

‘In Inglorious Empire, Shashi Tharoor documents the realities of the British empire in India and makes a compelling case for the need to acknowledge, and, atone for, these realities.’ — Book Riot, ’14 Must-Read Indian History Books’

‘With telling examples and scathing statistics . . . the book is a timely and helpful antidote to other contemporary works. . . the evidence that Tharoor presents to debunk the myths about Britain’s civilising mission is staggering.’— The Daily Star (Bangladesh)

‘Easy to read and extremely entertaining. [Tharoor] fills a vital space in our understanding of how Britain came, saw and destroyed a flourishing portion of the globe.’ — Counterfire 

‘Brilliant … A searing indictment of the Raj and its impact on India. … Required reading for all Anglophiles in former British colonies, and needs to be a textbook in Britain.’ — Salil Tripathi, Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee, PEN International, and author of The Colonel Who Would Not Repent 


Shashi Tharoor is a former UN under-secretary-general, a Congress MP in India, the author of twenty-five books, and the recipient of literary awards including a Commonwealth Writers' Prize. His Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India was a Sunday Times bestseller and a Financial Times Book of the Year.

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