“The answer is rape and rapine, as evidenced in the parliamentary impeachments of Robert Clive and Warren Hastings . . . the plunder economy that led to the deaths of half of the population of Bengal.” This view, that of an intemperate fellow academic, is fortunately not the one offered by David Gilmour in his thoughtful, ably grounded, and well-balanced account of the most successful empire in history. Fascinating on its own terms, Gilmour’s book is important not only for its account of the Raj, one that successfully captures the varied motivations at play and the many experiences involved, but also for what it says about empire itself.

The reputation of the British Empire takes a battering around much of the places it formerly held sway, but especially so in India, as in Shashi Tharoor’s deeply flawed Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to...

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