I am currently reading Ludwig von Mises' Human Action and find it rewarding in various ways. For instance, von Mises points out the following about volunteers' roles even around autocratic rulers:

Of course, it is possible to establish a government upon the violent oppression of reluctant people. It is the characteristic mark of state and government that they apply violent coercion or the threat of it against those not prepared to yield voluntarily. Yet such violent oppression is no less founded upon ideological might. He who wants to apply violence needs the voluntary cooperation of some people.

He alludes to the British rule in India by way of example of governing ideologies (the book was first published in 1949):

A comparatively insignificant number of Britons could rule many hundred millions of Indians because the Indian princes and aristocratic landowners looked upon British rule as a means for the preservation of their privileges and supplied it with the support which the generally acknowledged ideology of India gave to their own supremacy. England's Indian empire was firm as long as public opinion approved of the traditional social order. The Pax Britannica safeguarded the princes' and the landlords' privileges and protected the masses against the agonies of war between the principalities and of succession wars within them. In our day the infiltration of subversive ideas from abroad has undermined British rule and at the same time threatens the preservation of the country's age-old social order.

Now my question is this: Do we have evidence that British colonial politics opposite Indian maharajas was indeed shaped by such dynamics and whether colonial decision makers subscribed to similar ideas towards the beginning and end of British rule in India? (For instance, I am aware that Douglas MacArthur supported a continued role for the Japanese Tenno after World War II for partly similar reasons, but I was not aware so far that the Maharajas continued-if-somewhat-diminished influence e.g. in the 19th century should be mainly attributed to anything else but their families' political maneuverings in what from their perspective must have appeared as a struggle for survival.)

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    Wasn't the idea as old as Rome? Or Golden Horde for that matter.
    – DVK
    Feb 19, 2013 at 14:31
  • @DVK you are probably right, and von Mises e.g. also refers to "the Tartars in Russia [...] the Turks in the Danube principalities and by and large in Hungary and Transylvania and [...] the British and the Dutch in the Indies". I think his (first) quote summarizes the pattern rather well. I'm also curious as to exactly how the same pattern played out under the Chinese Yuan and Qing dynasties; this may in fact become the topic of a future question.
    – Drux
    Feb 19, 2013 at 18:09
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    I assume you mean how an outside minority like the Mongols and the Manchus respectively came to rule over the largest empire in Asia? In both cases the invaders became firmly assimilated into Chinese culture. The Manchus especially adopted Confucianism and especially favored the Song school, as mentioned in my question. Their own culture faded into the background as the dynasty aged and Han Chinese administrators were key. I would say it was different in China. history.stackexchange.com/questions/7617/…
    – grayQuant
    Feb 21, 2013 at 4:50
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    @grayQuant (1) fun reading. The economic crisis has led to my renewed interest in the Austrian School, whose members (such as von Mises and Hayek) had an interesting, somewhat "humble" epistemological stance; (2) I am aware that the Mongols and Manchus adopted the pattern (assimilating the culture -- but maybe not the "haircut" :) and would like to understand in (much) more detail how this played out: e.g. how was it that the Qing were able to pull it off and finally succeed over "legitimate" Ming remnants (in addition to exercising raw military might and the necessary piece of luck, i.e.).
    – Drux
    Feb 21, 2013 at 7:44
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    I will post this as a question and try to answer it myself. It's a topic that I've put in considerable time researching.
    – grayQuant
    Feb 21, 2013 at 17:46

3 Answers 3


Bankers, businessmen, landowners, nobles and princes all gave active support to the British. Indigenous collaborators and "traitors" such as Mir Jafar were key elements the British exploited to their own advantage. They promoted and demoted officials and bureaucrats to suit their ends. These are well recorded- the active support by the Jagat Seths and other bankers, the various nobility and princes.

The history of this period is now seen as a mercantile expansion- and the role of money, the motivation for acquiring wealth are seen as important factors. So the social milieu, complex economics, dynamics of a center-periphery competition and the transition from agrarian to mercantile economy are seen as contributing much more to the equation- it is no longer viewed as a simple 'military expansion' history.

Colonial history is therefore not a simplistic ruler-subject equation. Rather the British are seen as active participants in a greater and more wide-ranging transition. (This is notwithstanding the post-colonial lens which also views the construction of subject identities and many other 'epistemological violence' such as knowledge production.) For a very good introduction that refers to many other scholarly works, see this book.


Yes. The evidence that the British relied upon the support of Princes and land-owners is to be found in profusion in the recorded speeches and official communications of

  1. every single Governor General or Viceroy
  2. every single Secretary of State for India

However, there were periods when the policy on the ground was to annex Princedoms without an heir (the doctrine of lapse) and also to bypass 'zamindars' (large landlords who were tax-farmers by origin) and raise revenue from the cultivator (ryotwari system). However, this weakening of the traditional Social order- especially in Oudh and with respect to certain Maratha states- was blamed for the Mutiny of 1857. Once India came under direct rule by Westminster, it was the practice of each Secretary of State or Viceroy, on taking office, to reaffirm British determination to uphold the its duties as suzerain power and to acknowledge the loyalty shown by Princes and land-lords.

It is a different matter that the British, like previous paramount powers, reserved the right to remove a Prince or zamindar on grounds of disloyalty, incompetence, moral turpitude etc. However, this was in keeping with Indian tradition. What mattered was whether the new ruler belonged to the Ruling clan. However, this policy could not be successfully extended to Afghanistan. One reason British rule became more secure, not less so, was because the Aristocracy could see that when a Princedom or Estate was taken into administration (because the heir was a minor) then the treasury was replenished and so the dynasty became more secure.

Could the British have pivoted away from the Princes and Zamindars to base their support on the middle class? That was certainly the plan behind the setting up on the Indian National Congress. But it failed. The merchant class supported lawyer-politicians who steadily became more radical.

During the Second World War, after Hitler's invasion of the USSR when the Communists switched side, there was some idea of by passing the middle class and seeking support from the Workers. However, this was merely a temporary expedient. In the end, the Princes and Zamindars proved unable to assert themselves against the middle class and so they lost their power. But this happened after Independence.


I would not characterize the situation the way Mises did.

The English hardly needed the cooperation of the Muslims and other Nabobs to rule the country. At the Battle of Plassey (1757) they demonstrated decisively their military superiority. At their option they could depose any Maharajah they wished, simply by supplying weapons and support to whatever enemies of the Maharajah they wanted to replace him. One famous case was that of Rana of Jhalawar whom the English removed when he became non-cooperative. Also, when Punjab was annexed, many maharajahs were deposed and replaced.

The English supported whatever entity seemed to be most convenient. If a maharajah was cooperative and useful, they supported him. If he created problems, or opposed them, they would seek to have him removed and replaced.

Money and commerce were the driving factors in these interactions, not ideology.

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