Unmasking the Colonial Distortions of James Mill

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  • James Mill’s famous work “The History of British India” (1817) epitomizes colonial arrogance and bigotry typical of British imperialism.
  • Used as a textbook for English officers sent to India by the East India Company, this book shaped their attitudes and perceptions of the Indian subcontinent
  • Interestingly, Mill never set foot in India and was completely ignorant of India’s seminal literature, insisting that one need not be acquainted with India to pen its history.
  • While his claim as a historian can be easily refuted, his damaging influence on British colonial policies for India cannot be so easily dismissed. His polemics on India and its rich traditions left a deep and lasting scar on the Indian psyche. 
James Mill and his “The British History of India” – Two perfect metaphors for the bigotry and colonial arrogance that was the British Raj

James Mill, a prominent figure in the history of British colonialism, is remembered for his influential work, “The History of British India.” While Mill is often regarded as a historian, his writings on India have been criticized for their blatant racism, colonial bias, and distortion of historical facts. His skewed perspective on India through his writings had a major impact on British colonial policies and modern perceptions of India.

Born on April 6, 1773[1], in the obscurity of Northwater Bridge, Scotland, Mill’s early years were marked by a strict Calvinist upbringing. He initially pursued a career as a minister in the Church of Scotland. However, he eventually moved to London in 1802, where he embarked on a career in journalism. During his stint as a journalist, he edited the St James’s Chronicle, wrote a pamphlet on the corn trade, and a polemic on the vices of the papal system – not quite the background required to call oneself a philosopher and historian, as he later did.

His most enduring legacy came with the publication of  History of British India[2] in 1817. This book became a textbook for young English officers sent to India by the East India Company, shaping their attitudes and perceptions of the Indian subcontinent.

The book is characterized by its author’s wanton disregard for the fundamental tenets of historical research – accuracy, objectivity, and intimate knowledge of his subject. What’s truly stupefying is Mill’s admission that throughout his life, he never once visited[3] India, and maintained that one need not be acquainted with India to pen its history.

With no first-hand knowledge about Indian society, no command over classical Indian languages like Sanskrit or Prakrit, and oblivious to the rich regional linguistic landscape, it is no wonder that Mill’s life’s work is not known for its depth and substance, but for polemics and distortions of historical facts to fit his narrow-minded worldview.

Max Müller, not exactly an Indophile himself, argued that Mill’s History of British India was ‘responsible for some of the greatest misfortunes that had happened to India. Those who were going out to rule India ‘should shake off national prejudices, which are apt to degenerate into a kind of madness’.

The historian Thomas Trautmann[4] is far more direct in the criticism of his work: “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.”[5]

In the chapter titled General Reflections, Mill wrote, “Under the glossing exterior of the Hindu, lies a general disposition to deceit and perfidy.”[6] 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 both were “in physical sense, disgustingly unclean in their persons and houses”[7].

Given that “The History of British India” is nearly 800 pages long, James Mill had plenty of ink to spill on just about every aspect of India’s civilizational narrative – history, arts, sciences, statecraft or its alleged absence, culture, customs, social structure and a lot more. Here, we offer a few specimens of his writings to showcase his abject ignorance of the subject he was writing about and the extent of bigotry with which he approached his subject.

Mill’s take on Hindu Civilization

To begin, James Mill posited that perceiving the Hindus as an advanced and sophisticated society could somehow pose governance challenges. He dismissed[8] the premise that Hindu civilization, in its prime, stood as a beacon of progress, only to later degrade due to foreign invasions. Instead, he argued that Hindus never reached a commendable zenith in any field.

History, of course, presents a very different picture. At its zenith, Hindu civilization boasted exemplary urban infrastructures with intricate city designs, advanced drainage systems, and sophisticated scripts. Meanwhile, their European counterparts were predominantly tribal, with rudimentary agricultural practices. Furthermore, while Hindu poets were crafting great epics and poetic masterpieces, the lingual expressions of early Europeans remained rudimentary.

Hindu Governance, Statecraft and Warfare

In his assessment, James Mill argued for the perceived supremacy of ancient Europeans over Hindus in governance, statecraft, and warfare. He went even further, casting aspersions on the very capability of Hindus to engage in disciplined warfare.

In view of his lack of familiarity with ancient Sanskrit texts, it is not surprising that he had little understanding of the rich system of governance and strategic tenets entrenched in Indian epics and scriptures. The Ramayana’s portrayal of ‘Ram Rajya’ exemplifies enlightened governance, while Kautilya’s Arthashastra offers a comprehensive insight into statecraft and warfare.

Regarding military strategy, one finds a wealth of knowledge in the Ramayana and Mahabharata, which detail precise martial terminologies and classifications like Patti, Senamukha, and Akshauhini. Furthermore, the concept of “Dhanurvigyan” epitomizes the science and art of archery as practiced in ancient India. The epics delve into the meticulous articulation of military formations – the Vyuhas – encompassing configurations such as Vajra, Padma, and Chakra. These are not mere artistic descriptions but attest to a profound understanding of warfare strategy and methodology.

Hit Job on Indian History

James Mill questioned the credibility of Hindu historical records, suggesting Hindu scriptures as mere chronicles of conflicts, bloodshed, and unfairness.

He then belittled Hindu rulers of the past as mere tales devoid of historical grounding. His labeling of Vikramaditya, whose patronage gave birth to the renowned works of Kalidasa that still resonate today, as a mere figment of the imagination is nothing short of a historical travesty.

He also questioned the credibility of Hindu historians, accusing them of embellishing and altering monarchical accounts.

Mill completely overlooks the Gupta dynasty’s golden age, the awe-inspiring temple architecture, the peaceful reign of Odisha’s Ganga dynasty, or the magnificence of the Mauryan era. He also paid scant attention to historical evidence like inscriptions at Takshashila and Hathigumpha and comprehensive accounts of such well-known dynasties as the Cholas and Guptas.

While it is true that ancient Indian history has a strong oral component, Mill’s outright denigration of it is a grave disservice to the profound narratives that shaped the culture and identity of the Indian subcontinent. While all cultural records contain embellishments to some extent, Mill’s sweeping disregard of an entire historical continuum based on this argument reflects a typical white man’s bias that permeated the colonial attitudes of his times.

Downplaying Islamic Atrocities

Mill’s assertion that the impact of the Islamic conquest[9] on India was minimal contradicts the historical accounts of other, far more reliable and respectable scholars like Will Durant[10] and Koenraad Elst[11]. The destruction of temples and forced conversions were part of a systematic attempt to reshape India’s demographic and religious landscape.

Mike Conrad, in “The Greatest Murder Machine in History,” offers this damning view of India’s encounter with Islam: “When one thinks of mass murder, Hitler comes to mind. If not Hitler, then Tojo, Stalin, or Mao. Credit is given to the 20th-century totalitarians as the worst species of tyranny to have ever arisen. However, the alarming truth is that Islam has killed more than any of these and may surpass all of them combined in numbers and cruelty. The enormity of the slaughters of the ‘religion of peace’ are so far beyond comprehension that even honest historians overlook the scale.”[12]

Poets and Poetry

Mill downplayed the depth[13] of Indian music and poetry. His view that Hindus lacked depth in music and poetry is not just an oversight, it is an insult to the rich heritage of Indian literary tradition. The downplaying of towering figures like Kalidasa, renowned for his poetic finesse, Aśvaghoṣa’s philosophical profundity, Vishakhadatta’s theatrical genius, Bhavabhūti’s artistic magnetism, and Banbhatta’s refined eloquence, underscore Mill’s lack of understanding of the Indian literature. These are not ordinary works of literature; they are the very cornerstones of global literary heritage, shaping discourse and inspiring generations of writers and thinkers.

To illustrate, here’s what Humboldt, a German linguist, has said about Kalidasa: “Kālidāsa, the celebrated author of the Śākuntalā, is a masterly describer of the influence which Nature exercises upon the minds of lovers. Tenderness in the expression of feelings and richness of creative fancy have assigned to him his lofty place among the poets of all nations.”[14]

Monier Williams, the nineteenth-century Indologist at Oxford, echoed Humboldt’s sentiment: “No composition of Kālidāsa displays more the richness of his poetical genius, the exuberance of his imagination, the warmth and play of his fancy, his profound knowledge of the human heart, his delicate appreciation of its most refined and tender emotions, his familiarity with the workings and counterworkings of its conflicting feelings.”[15]

Furthermore, Mill’s dismissal of Hindu epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata is not just an oversight; it’s a flagrant disrespect for the works of eminent masters of yore like Valmiki and Ved Vyasa. Their contributions are timeless masterpieces that have left an indelible mark on world literature.

Impact of Mill’s Work

James Mill had plenty of say about India’s scientific knowledge, customs, social order, and much more. For instance, his that Hindus had only a basic grasp of medicine is a mockery of the pioneering works of luminaries like Susruta and Charaka, whose contributions continue to medical practices to this day. His description of the Varna-Jati system is a textbook case of Europe’s oppressive class structure being projected onto Indian society. 

It would be pointless to counter his lies and distortions on a point-by-point basis. Suffice it to say that there is plenty of objective evidence to give a lie to just about every chapter, paragraph, and statement in his writings about India and Indian civilization.

Modern-day successors of James Mill

Unfortunately, while his scholarship as a historian can be easily dismissed, his impact on India and its people cannot be dismissed so easily. His “The History of British India” was used by the East India Company as a training manual for British officers, perpetuating Eurocentric biases and dismissive views of Indian society. This influenced British colonial actions, including the plunder of India’s wealth, the destruction of its industries, and the mistreatment of its people. Even more disturbing is the fact that Mill’s racist writings against Hindus and Hinduism continue to echo in contemporary discourse, serving as a historical foundation for certain biases and misconceptions. His ideas continue to influence modern discussions on Hinduism, impacting how it’s perceived and studied in the modern world.

Often referred to as a “Distorian par Excellence,” Mill serves as a prime example of colonial arrogance and racism, epitomizing the ugliest facet of British imperialism. His work had an extremely detrimental impact on British colonial policies and the perception of India, perpetuating harmful stereotypes and undermining the rich cultural and historical heritage of the Indian subcontinent. His denigration of the Indian people, intellect, and rich heritage was nothing short of an insult to the nation he never even set foot in.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Mill

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_History_of_British_India

[3] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/james-mill/

[4] Thomas Trautmann – Wikipedia

[5]  Trautmann, Thomas R. (2006) [1997]. Aryans and British India (2nd Indian ed.). New Delhi: YODA Press. p. 117. ISBN 8190227211.

[6] Mill, James (1858). The History of British India. Madden. p. 150

[7] Dharampal, The Beautiful Tree

[8] https://www.dharampal.net/sites/default/files/2021-02/Despoliation_and_Defaming_of_India_1999.pdf

[9] https://www.indiafacts.org.in/british-raj-and-the-defaming-of-india-since-the-1800s-ii/

[10] Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, Ch. XVI

[11] Koenraad Elst, Negationism in India, Voice of India, New Delhi, 2002, p.34

[12] Mike Conrad, The Greatest Murder Machine in History, available online at https://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2014/05/the_greatest_murder_machine_in_history.html#ixzz5MlGTaPYS

[13] https://era.ed.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/1842/15798/Chen2000.pdf

[14]Kale, M.R. (1969). The Abhijñānaśākuntalam of Kālidāsa. Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 978-8120802834; pp. xxvii.

[15] Kale, M.R. (1969). The Abhijñānaśākuntalam of Kālidāsa. Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN 978-8120802834; pp. xxvi-xxvii

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