In This Review

Shameful Flight: The Last Years of the British Empire in India

Shameful Flight: The Last Years of the British Empire in India
By Stanley Wolpert
272 pp, Oxford University Press, 2006

Winston Churchill characterized the British withdrawal from India as a "shameful flight," a judgment that Wolpert, a leading American historian of South Asia, reinforces in this detailed and thoughtful study. Wolpert gets behind the inflamed partisan rhetoric of the day and explores the complex web of relationships involving Hindus and Muslims, British civil servants and British politicians. The partition of India led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, an outcome Wolpert argues was not necessary. It was a horrible end to British imperialism. Wolpert traces the tragic climax back to the missteps in leadership among all those involved, most particularly the last viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten. His study begins in February 1942 with the fall of Singapore to the Japanese and the failure of Sir Stafford Cripps' mission seeking Muslim and Hindu support for the war effort and ends with the Indo-Pakistani war over Kashmir in 1948. He examines almost month by month the developments that brought different leaders to center stage -- where they invariably proved to be failures.