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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

II. Historians, Biographers and Political Orators

§ 41. James Mill’s History of India

Turning to the historians of British India and the colonies, we are met on the threshold by the name of James Mill, whose place in the history of English thought has been discussed elsewhere. By his History of India (1817), he was the first to accomplish, on a scale and with a breadth of treatment befitting the theme, a history of India under British rule. For the critical side of his task, he was signally endowed by nature, prepared by philosophical study and trained by continuous practice as a writer, more especially in The Edinburgh Review (1808–18). On the other hand, he had never been in India; and, as he freely confessed, “if he had any, had a very slight and elementary acquaintance with any of the languages of the East.” He ingeniously deprecated the force of these objections by arguments from analogy; but their fallacy was sufficiently exposed by the learned Sanskrit scholar Horace Hayman Wilson, who edited the fourth edition of Mill’s History (1840–8), and continued it from 1803 to 1835. He, also, charges Mill with having, in what is the most originally conceived section of the work—book II, Of the Hindus, where it is proposed to summarise, in some 350 pages, their laws and institutions, religion, literature and art—displayed the kind of contempt which is not always based on familiarity; though, in the opinion of Mill’s biographer Bain, if these strictures upon the natives really tended to increase the difficulties of British rule in India, this effect was more than outweighed by that of Mill’s unsparing criticism of all who had a share in founding and extending our Indian empire. The more strictly historical portion of the work is distinguished by a lucidity of method which, in dealing with masses of matter distributed over a vast area and, in part, reaching back across a great interval of time, is invaluable to the student. Mill, as a historian, had no example to follow in the school of thinkers to which he belonged—least of all in Bentham, whose knowledge of history is not to be reckoned among his strong points. On the other hand, Bentham severely blamed the style of Mill’s book, and he does not stand alone in his censures.