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Utilitarian view of history

A critical analysis of Mill’s project

Utilitarian view of history
James Mill.

History serves as a powerful tool for the creation of self-perception as it exists in the present. While, studying Indian history it appears as if some authors wielded that tool (of history) in quite an effective manner. One of them was James Mill (1773-1836) who spawned the utilitarian view of history through his monumental work, The History of British India, which ran into several volumes.

Mill saw in a new Indian empire a fertile field for utilitarian reform; arguments to this effect could be made on the basis of the decadent state of life and culture in India. Thus he attempted to interrogate with all possible severity the Hindu and the Muslim governments and civilisations and condemned them both.

Begun in 1806, when Mill was just 33, his book was published in 1818 and made a great impression. The Court of Directors of the East India Company appointed Mill to a senior position in their London office. Eminent economist, Ricardo ((1772-1823) eulogised Mill’s work to the skies; Macaulay ranked it as “greatest historical works which has appeared in our language since that of Gibbon.”

‘His minute on Indian education’ bore its mark. His son, John Stuart Mill, described it as one of the most instructive histories ever written.

The encomiums of Mill’s work demonstrated more than its profundity, the British attitude towards the Native Indians. The radical alteration of Indian society on utilitarian lines recommended by Mill corresponded with the aims and needs of British imperialism.

In order to put Mill’s history in a historical context, one must understand the nature and character of British imperialist construction of India. It is therefore incumbent on us to understand the major assumptions, attitudes and purposes of the writers and dominant schools of thought to which they belonged.

Prior to 1857, three schools of thought competed to control the British attitude and policy towards India. The first school comprised of men like Governor General Warren Hastings and Orientalists like Charles Wilkins (1749-1836), William Jones (1746-1794) and Thomas Colebrooke (1765-1837) who thought very high of the early Hindu civilisation. They showed deference to the native institutions and recommended gradual changes to be made in the Indian life. This view was subsequently maintained by writers like Mountstuart Elphinstone (1779-1859), Thomas Munroe (1761-1826), Malcolm, H. H. Wilson (1786-1860).

A critical analysis of his history is vital for graduate students to improve their understanding of the colonial historical discourse.

The orientalist writers were challenged by new ideas and new schools of thought. 18th Century was the age of reason and Enlightenment. The prevalent belief that the West had discovered the secret of progress through the employment of reason put India in the category of static (read: semi-barbaric) cultures.

Based on this conviction two views became prominent by putting forward the prognosis for the Indian society to be redeemed and reclaimed for civilisation. John Shore (1751-1834), the successor to Lord Cornwallis, and Charles Grant (1746-1823) represented that evangelical viewpoint. Grant urged the application of Christianity and western education to change what he thought was “hideous state of Indian society”. These two were backed by missionaries who similarly castigated Indian society and suggested similar remedies. In order to rid Indian society of the much advertised depravity and vice, they found ready remedy in the scheme of English education preceded or followed by a general conversion to Christianity.

It seems somewhat ironical that the proponents of the rationalist-utilitarian thought also arrived at the same conclusion by a different route. Jeremy Bentham’s (1748-1832) utilitarian philosophy held that the test of anything — any institution whether political, religious or social — is its utility. To put in simpler terms, a thing is valuable only if it is useful, if it can perform a useful function. Similarly, the institutions that are not conducive to general human welfare are either to be reformed or discarded. Reform could be carried out through universal education and governmental legislation. Thus the utilitarians staunchly believed in the efficacy of laws and of reform on utilitarian lines to reinvent whole societies and civilisations.

To James Mill, Bentham’s ardent disciple and leading utilitarian, the native Indian culture was static and degraded. The only way to transform it was an infusion of western ideas and knowledge inculcated to the indigenous people by proper laws administered by a despotic government. This was the ideology underpinning Mill’s project of history.

Some of Mill’s critics hold the view that he had formed his conclusions even before he started writing his history; all he needed was some evidence to substantiate those preconceived conclusions. Since he was employed in the office of East India Company in Leaden Hall Street, London, he had access to every document arriving from India.

However, it is a bit disconcerting that he did not bother to benefit from the advances made by the Orientalists in ancient Indian history. His contempt for William Jones and other scholars of his ilk was well-known. Therefore, by dismissing the orientalists and their testimony, Mill relied more on the travellers’ account which did not mostly stand the test of historical accuracy. Mill relied more on Robert Orme’s (1728-1801) account which was at best an outsider’s view on India or on Francis Buchanan-Hamilton (1762-1829) and Alexander Fraser Tytler (1747-181), a Scottish judge and historian, who knew Indian society only through the criminal law courts.

Despite several deficiencies, Mill’s history had a tremendous influence not only on the British policy towards India but in formulating the self-perception of the natives. The importance of the book could be seen in the number of times it went to the press (1818, 1820, 1826 and 1840). It provided, as C.H. Philips observes, the main basis for British thought on the character of Indian civilization, and on the way to govern India.

That book was introduced as a textbook at Haileybury College from 1805-1855, where the company’s civil service recruits were trained and where a succession of eminent utilitarians held senior teaching posts. It will be fair to conclude that Mill was among those who profoundly influenced our historical sensibility and self-perception.

Hence, a critical analysis of his history is vital for graduate students to improve their understanding of the colonial historical discourse.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.

One comment

  • Thank you for such an informative article. However, Mill’s History was published in 1817-18 and introduced only a few years later as a textbook at Haileybury. It would be very interesting to understand the practical impact of the motivated history project of James Mill on the Indian people and how it continues to influence perceptions till today..

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