‘British India’ was not the story of some short-term ‘mandate’ without historical depth. A sentimental picture of ‘progress’ and ‘development’ under British rule, as imperially presented, no doubt masked exploitation and arrogance, but was nevertheless genuinely held, and beyond the retired ranks of the Indian Civil Service. The end of the largest and most populous empire ‘possessed’ by a European power was a statement about European power or European will (or a combination of the two). It did not, however, arise out of a concerted and coordinated decision in the capitals of Europe to ‘end’ empire. France and the Netherlands would have to live with the ‘signal’ that the British intention gave: European colonial empire, in all its varied manifestations, would have to end everywhere. Its implications for the British could be glimpsed, as in the previous chapter, in the Middle East. That region’s importance had often been seen as ‘safeguarding the route to India’, but it had now to be reinterpreted. There would, in short, no longer be the same kind of passage to India, whether the voyage out was viewed literally or metaphorically. In a different way, the context of the British relationship with the small sheikdoms of the Arabian/Persian Gulf on the one hand, and its position in Aden (both Crown Colony and the Protectorates in the hinterland) on the other, also shifted. In the former, by virtue of nineteenth-century Exclusive Treaties, Britain was the protecting power but the sheikhs carried on their own internal government. Their significance began to change from being, as it were, Indian backwaters to significant small states with ill-defined borders, possibly predatory neighbours, and oil wealth.
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