The History of British India

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The History of British India
History of British India 1817 James Mill.jpg
The title page of the first edition
AuthorJames Mill
CountryUnited Kingdom
Genrehistory, political philosophy
PublisherLondon: Baldwin, Cradock and Joy
Publication date
Media typePrint

The History of British India is a history of Company rule in India by the 19th century British historian and imperial political theorist James Mill.

This History went into many editions and during the 19th century became the standard reference work on its subject among British imperialists.[1]


James Mill began his History of British India in 1806, expecting it to take him about three years, but its completion proved to take instead twelve years, with three substantial volumes at last being published early in 1817.[1] The work was immediately successful among British imperialists and secured for Mill for the first time a degree of prosperity. It led, with the support of David Ricardo and Joseph Hume, to Mill's appointment in 1819 in United Kingdom as assistant (later chief) examiner of correspondence at the imperial East India Company at an annual salary of £800. By 1836, when he died, this income had become £2,000.[1]

Mill's biographer Bruce Mazlish takes a practical view of Mill's purpose in beginning the History, stating

By 1802, unable to find a parish and disillusioned with a religious career, he "emigrated" to England. There he quickly obtained a position as editor and writer, married, and began to raise a family. To secure his position, he began to write a great work, The History of British India, in 1806, the same year as his first-born, John Stuart, arrived on the scene... James finally finished The History of British India, and on the basis of it secured the post of an examiner at the imperial East India Company, rising to the top in a few years.[2]


The History of British India purports to be a study of India in which James set out to attack the history, character, religion, literature, arts, and laws of India, also making claims about the influence of the Indian climate.[3] He also aimed to locate the attacks on India within a wider theoretical framework.[4]

The book begins with a preface in which Mill tries to make a virtue of having never visited India and of knowing none of its native languages.[5] To him, these are guarantees of his objectivity, and he boldly claims –

A duly qualified man can obtain more knowledge of India in one year in his closet in England than he could obtain during the course of the longest life, by the use of his eyes and ears in India.[4]

However, Mill goes on in this preface to say that his work is a "critical, or judging history", encompassing singularly harsh attacks on Hindu customs and a "backward" culture which he claims to be notable only for superstition, ignorance, and the mistreatment of women.[1] Mill was particularly notable for his brutal attack on the sati, which he took as evidence of the "savagery and particular brutishness" of Indian culture.[6] His work was influential in the eventual ban of the sati in 1823.

From the historical perspective, Mill tells the story of the English and, later, British acquisition of wide territories in India, severely criticising those involved in these conquests and in the later administration of the conquered territories, as well as illuminating the harmful effects of commercial monopolies such as that of the imperial East India Company.[3] As a philosopher, Mill applies political theory to the description of the civilisations of India. His interest is in institutions, ideas, and historical processes, while his work is relatively lacking in human interest, in that he does not seek to paint memorable portraits of Robert Clive, Warren Hastings, and the other leading players in the history of British India, nor of its famous battles.[1] Indeed, the History has been called "...a work of Benthamite 'philosophical history' from which the reader is supposed to draw lessons about human nature, reason and religion".[7]

Despite the fact that Mill had never been to India, his work had a profound effect on the British imperial system of governing the country, as did his later official connection with India.[3]

The Orientalist Horace Hayman Wilson edited later editions and extended the history to 1835 with a continuation entitled The History of British India from 1805 to 1835. He also added notes to Mill's work, based on his own knowledge of India and its languages. The History of British India is still in print.[3][8]

In his introduction to Ungoverned Imaginings: James Mill's The History of British India and Orientalism, Javed Majeed argues against "colonialist discourse" approaches to Mill's History,[9] while in his forthcoming James Mill and the Despotism of Philosophy (2009), David McInerney considers how Mill's History of British India relates to Enlightenment historiography, and especially William Robertson's Historical Disquisition Concerning the Knowledge the Ancients had of India. He argues that Mill first published his theory of government in The History of British India, and that in the work Mill's use of history is not rationalist but entails an empirical conception of how historical records relate to the improvement of government.[10]


According to Thomas Trautmann, "James Mill's highly influential History of British India (1817) – most particularly the long essay 'Of the Hindus' comprising ten chapters – is the single most important source of British Indophobia and hostility to Orientalism".[11] In the chapter titled General Reflections in "Of the Hindus", Mill wrote "under the glosing exterior of the Hindu, lies a general disposition to deceit and perfidy".[12] According to Mill, "the same insincerity, mendacity, and perfidy; the same indifference to the feelings of others; the same prostitution and venality" were the conspicuous characteristics of both the Hindoos and the Muslims. The Muslims, however, were perfuse, when possessed of wealth, and devoted to pleasure; the Hindoos almost always penurious and ascetic; and "in truth, the Hindoo like the eunuch, excels in the qualities of a slave". Furthermore, similar to the Chinese, the Hindoos were "dissembling, treacherous, mendacious, to an excess which surpasses even the usual measure of uncultivated society". Both the Chinese and the Hindoos were "disposed to excessive exaggeration with regard to everything relating to themselves". Both were "cowardly and unfeeling". Both were "in the highest degree conceited of themselves, and full of affected contempt for others". And, above all, both were "in physical sense, disgustingly unclean in their persons and houses".[13]

Published editions[edit]

  • The History of British India (London: Baldwin, Cradock and Joy, first edition, 1817), volume I, volume II, volume III. OCLC 898934488
  • The History of British India (London: Baldwin, Cradock and Joy, second edition, 1820) OCLC 505123143
  • The History of British India (London: Baldwin, Cradock and Joy, third edition, 6 volumes, 1826) OCLC 5224340
  • The History of British India (London: James Madden, fourth edition, ed. by Horace Hayman Wilson, 10 volumes, 1848) OCLC 65314750
  • The History of British India (London: James Madden, fifth edition, ed. by Horace Hayman Wilson, 10 volumes, 1858) OCLC 893322163
  • The History of British India, reprint in three volumes, (Associated Publishing House, ISBN 978-1-122-81783-7) OCLC 917576212
  • James Mill's History of British India (London: Taylor & Francis / Routledge, 10 volumes including Horace Hayman Wilson's continuation to 1835; 1997, ISBN 978-0-415-15382-9) OCLC 313028143

Online editions[edit]

Edition of 1858[edit]

The 1858 edition of ten volumes is edited by Horace Hayman Wilson. The first six volumes are based on an earlier six volume edition, while volumes seven to nine are based on an earlier three volume edition. The tenth volume is an index volume, split into two indexes, the first index for volumes one to six, the second index for volumes seven to nine.


  1. ^ a b c d e Ball, Terence , 'Mill, James (1773–1836)', in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, September 2004; online edn, dated October 2007, at
  2. ^ Mazlish, Bruce, James and John Stuart Mill (Transaction Publishers, 1988 ISBN 978-0-88738-727-2), p. 4 at
  3. ^ a b c d The History of British India at
  4. ^ a b Marriott, John, The Other Empire: Metropolis, India and Progress in the Colonial Imagination (Manchester University Press, 2003, ISBN 978-0-7190-6018-2), p. 133 at
  5. ^ Ball, Terence (November 30, 2005). "James Mill". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 edition). Retrieved 2008-12-15.
  6. ^ Narasimhan, Sakuntala (1992-01-01). Sati: Widow Burning in India. Doubleday. ISBN 9780385423175.
  7. ^ Summary at The History of British India page of Online Library of Liberty web site.
  8. ^ The History of British India (4th edn) title details at
  9. ^ Inderpal Grewal, review of Ungoverned Imaginings: James Mill's The History of British India and Orientalism by Javed Majeed in The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Nov., 1993), pp. 1060-1061
  10. ^ ISBN 978-0-415-95612-3 Online summary of James Mill and the Despotism of Philosophy (2009) at
  11. ^ Trautmann, Thomas R. (2006) [1997]. Aryans and British India (2nd Indian ed.). New Delhi: YODA Press. p. 117. ISBN 81-902272-1-1.
  12. ^ Mill, James (1858). The History of British India. Madden.
  13. ^ Dharampal, The Beautiful Tree.

Secondary literature[edit]

  • Majeed, Javed, Ungoverned Imaginings: James Mill's the History of British India and Orientalism (Oxford: University of California Press, 1992, 225 pp.) ISBN 978-0-19-811786-5
  • Yasukawa, Ryuji, 'James Mill's The History of British India Reconsidered', in Journal of the Tokyo College of Economics vol. 203 (1997) pp. 65–88
  • McInerney, David, James Mill and the Despotism of Philosophy: Reading 'The History of British India' (London: Routledge, 2009, ISBN 978-0-415-95612-3)
  • Harrington, Jack, Sir John Malcolm and the Creation of British India (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), chs. 2 & 6.