In his notes for a speech to be delivered in the House of Commons in the wake of American Independence, the MP and imperial reformer Edmund Burke observed that ‘Some people are great Lovers of uniformity – They are not satisfied with a rebellion in the West. They must have one in the East: They are not satisfied with losing one Empire – they must lose another. Lord North will weep that he has not more worlds to lose’. At its eighteenth-century height, the British Empire extended its power over two vast indigenous spaces: one in North America, and the other in India. The question of what this empire was, and how it should be governed was the subject of intense debate in Britain. For decades, historians have maintained that the acquisition of vast territorial domains was unexpected and unplanned – in a ‘fit of absence of mind’.
In The Politics of Empire at the Accession of George III: The East India Company and the Crisis and Transformation of Britain’s Imperial State (Yale University Press, 2019), James M. Vaughn offers an powerful challenge to the received view that the Asian domains were acquired by accident and formed part of an empire of liberty. By charting a fundamental shift in British politics during the eighteenth century, he reveals that the imperial project in India was defined by conquest and domination and driven by a new kind of politics.
James M. Vaughn is the JMC-Thomas W. Smith Fellow in the History of Political Economy at the George Washington Forum in the Department of History at Ohio University
Charles Prior is Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Hull (UK), who has written on the politics of religion in early modern Britain, and whose work has recently expanded to the intersection of colonial, indigenous, and imperial politics in early America. He co-leads the Treatied Spaces Research Cluster.