Michael Silvestri

Spies, Sailors and Revolutionaries: Bengali Revolutionary Networks and British Imperial Intelligence between the World Wars

After an attempt to assassinate Sir John Anderson, British Governor of Bengal, the would be assassin is carried away, 1934. (Photo © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)


After the 1905 Partition of Bengal, nationalist revolutionaries deployed violence as a strategy to disrupt colonial administration and bring about the downfall of the Raj. Colonial anxieties about “Bengali terrorism” led to the development of an extensive police intelligence apparatus. This intelligence expertise was applied globally in the interwar period both to the policing of Bengali revolutionaries and to other anticolonial threats. Bengali revolutionaries sought alliances with nationalists, communists and anti-colonial activists, and accumulated an arsenal of imported firearms with the aid of European and Asian maritime workers. Imperial authorities in London, New Delhi, Calcutta and elsewhere in the British Empire in turn sought to prevent the flow of arms to the revolutionaries. My talk will use the careers of the shadowy revolutionary figure known as Hugo Espinoza and of Charles Tegart, Police Commissioner of Calcutta and imperial intelligence officer, to illustrate this interplay between global anticolonial activity and imperial intelligence in the interwar era. While recent historians have emphasized the important role of intelligence during the era of post-World War II decolonization, the extensive intelligence apparatus directed against the Bengali revolutionaries suggests that the roots of British imperial intelligence as a sustained practice lie in the interwar era.


Michael Silvestri is Associate Professor of History at Clemson University. A specialist in modern British and Irish history, his research focuses on transnational networks of individuals and ideas across the British Empire. He is the author of two books, Ireland and India: Nationalism, Empire and Memory (2009) and Policing “Bengali Terrorism” in India and the World: Imperial Intelligence and Revolutionary Nationalism, 1905-1939 (2019), and a co-author of the textbook Britain Since 1688: A Nation in the World (2014). His research has been funded by grants from the American Philosophical Society and the National Endowment for the Humanities. His current book project, “’A Country that has Served the World Well with Police’: The Irish Policeman in the British Empire and Beyond,” explores the Irish role in policing the British Empire in locales ranging from North America to the British Caribbean to Southeast Asia to Australasia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.