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The value of India: Colonel Chesney's view, 1878

General Sir George Tomkyns Chesney (1830-1895) is now remembered as the author of the fiction of future war, 'The Battle of Dorking'. Yet htis was just one episode in his long, varied and distinguished career. (1) Chesney, the son of a Bengal Artillery officer, was born at Tiverton, Devon, and educated at Blundell's School and the East India Company's military college at Addiscombe, near Croydon. He was commissioned into the Bengal Engineers, and went to India in 1850. He served in the Public Works Department, and in 1856 became assistant principal of the Thomason Engineering College, Roorkee. In 1857, following the outbreak of the Mutiny, he joined the column from Ambala and served at the siege of Delhi. He was wounded at the assault on 14 September, and was mentioned in despatches.

After recovering from his wounds he was principal of the short-lived Civil Engineering College at Fort William, Calcutta, then accountant-general of the P.W.D. In 1868 he published his book Indian Polity, a study of the Indian administration with proposals for reforms, including the abolition of the presidencies and their separate armies. In 1871 he became the first president of the Royal Indian Engineering College at Cooper's Hill, Staines, and served there until 1880. In 1871 he published in Blackwood's Magazine his story of future German invasion of Britain, 'The Battle of Dorking' (2) It "caused a great sensation at the time" (3), was denounced by Mr Gladstone, the Prime Minister, and launched a genre of tales of imaginary future wars which flourished in Britain and on the continent until the Great War. (4)

'The Battle of Dorking' was one of Chesney's many contributions to Blackwood's and other periodicals, from 1867 to 1894 and mostly articles on topical Indian and military issues. The quarterly and monthly reviews were a forum of debate on the great Victorian issues, to which leading divines, savants, statesmen and soldiers, and others less distinguished, contributed. Among the issues they discussed were those of the Empire, and their articles formed part of the wider, and largely political, 1870'2 debate on the Empire and imperial policy, with Disraeli and other Conservatives accusing the Liberals of hostility to the Empire, and Liberals attacking Disraeli's imperialism. In November 1877 Robert Lowe, the Liberal politician and former minister (5), published in the Fortnightly Review an article, 'The value to the United Kingdom of the foreign dominions of the Crown', arguing that the Empire was an economic and military burden to Britain.

Chesney disagreed. He replied to Lowe, with 'The Value of India to England' in the February 1878 Nineteench Century, addressing an important and controversial question. (6) Chesney claimed that British rule benefited both Britain and India, and that Britain benefited militarily and economically. He argued, against Lowe's allegation that the Empire drained British military manpower, that the British garrison in India caused Britain a demographic loss minimal relative to that from emigration, reduced pressure on the labour market, and provided military experience for soldiers who later entered the reserve. India was crucial to British power: "England is in fact, through her Indian Empire, a first-class military power and could bring into the field an army quite as large as those with which recent history has made us familiar", and that "the country affords a practically unlimited recruiting ground ... of manly races possessing the qualities for making a splendid soldiery ... the military resources of India are capable of immediate and indefinite expansion."

Britain, Chesney argued, benefited economically from India through trade and banking, and through spending and saving by Britons working there. India provided employment for Britons,

"There is hardly a middle-class English family which has not a relative employed in some official capacity in India, which tush comes to our aid in a practical difficulty, by drawing off a portion of that supply of English youth which seems ot be always tending to exceed the demand for it ... the outlet afforded by India is a very real benefit to the class in question."

The loss of India would be "a tremendous calamity affecting every class of English society." Indian trade, prosperity and progress depended on British rule. If the British withdrew, India would be ruled not by the superficially Anglicised Bengalis but by "the more manly and unsophisticated but unscrupulous classes, whether within or without the frontier ... whose uprising would be followed by the destruction or decay of the roads and railways and telegraphs, and all marks of English occupation, with the total cessation of foreign trade."

Chesney concluded that, for the British, "To defend India might conceivably demand a great effort; to lose it must involved a shock that would vibrate through every section of English society, and would go far to work a calamitous revolution in the material condition of the English people."

Two years after his 'Value of India' article Chesney was back in India, as secretary of the military department, from 1880 to 1886. From 1886 to 1891 he was military member of the governor-general's council, the Indian counterpart of a war minister. He worked closely and harmoniously with the commander-in-chief, Sir Frederick Roberts. Chesney retired in 1891 and returned to England. In 1892 he was elected Conservative M.P. fo rthe city of Oxford. He died in 1895. Chesney had in many respects been exceptional. Yet in his 1878 articles on the value of India he was probably typical of his class and expressed the orthodoxy of the Anglo-Indian military.

Footnotes

(1) There is no biography of Chesney. The fullest account is Roger T. Stearn, 'General Sir George Chesney' J.S.A.H.R. (forthcoming) which has references to the sources for Chesney. See also the article by Colonel R.H. Vetch in the Dictionary of National Biography

(2) Blackwood's CIX (May 1871).
See I.F. Clarke, 'The Battle of Dorking, 1871-1914', Victorian Studies VII No.4 (June 1965);
Voices Prophesying War 1763-1984 (1966, 1970) pp. 31-47

(3) Annual Register 1895, part II, p.164

(4) See Roger T. Stearn, 'Victorian and Edwardian Fiction of Future War', SOTQ 69 (June 1992) and 'The Mysterious Mr Le Queux', ibid 70 (September 1992).

(5) Robert Lowe (1811-92), truculent, myopic, albino, right-wing Liberal, opponent of parliamentary reform in 1866, Chancellor of the Exchequer 1868-73, Home Secretary 1873-4.

(6) The question Chesney addressed remains difficult. B.R. Tomlinson in the New Cambridge History of India IIL3 (1993) p13 has written of 'the great riddle of the Raj - whether India was Britain's foremost asset or her greatest liability'. For a recent brief overview (though inaccurate on the army). See Judith M. Brown, Modern India (1994) pp.100-4

From 'Soldiers of the Queen, issue 80

 

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