The Imperial Security State

Title:                      The Imperial Security State

Author:                 James Hevia

Hevia, James Louis (2012). The Imperial Security State: British Colonial Knowledge And Empire-Building In Asia. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press

LCCN:    2012013668

UB251.G7 H48 2012


  • “The Imperial Security State explores an important but under-explored dimension of British imperialism – its information system and the close links between military knowledge and the maintenance of empire. James Hevia’s innovative study focuses on route books and military reports produced by the British Indian Army military intelligence between 1880 and 1940. He shows that together these formed a renewable and authoritative archive that was used to train intelligence officers, to inform civilian policy makers and to provide vital information to commanders as they approached the battlefield. The strategic, geographical, political and ethnographical knowledge that was gathered not only framed imperial strategies towards colonised areas to the east but also produced the very object of intervention: Asia itself. Finally, the book addresses the long-term impact of the security regime, revealing how elements of British colonial knowledge have continued to influence contemporary tactics of counterinsurgency in twenty-first-century Iraq and Afghanistan”– Provided by publisher.


  • Machine generated contents note: 1. Introduction; 2. The military revolution of the nineteenth century; 3. Imperial state formation, the professionalization of the army, and the making of experts; 4. Forming intelligence, making an archive; 5. Disciplining the space of Asia: triangulation and route books; 6. Regulating the facts of Asia: military reports and handbooks; 7. The uses of intelligence; 8. The effects of the imperial security regime in Asia and Great Britain; 9. Imperial security and the transformation of Asia; Bibliography.


Date Posted:      April 25, 2016

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[1]

If asked about the components of modem day intelligence, most people would be likely to think of recruiting and handling agents, SIGINT, satellites, cybersecurity, and analysts briefing policymakers. In The Imperial Security State, James Hevia, professor of international history at the University of Chicago, examines an earlier era, when intelligence informed the imperial state on different topics and in different ways. His focus is on the origins and evolution of British and Indian Army intelligence organizations in the so-called “Great Game” era in South Asia. His objective is to convey how both contributed to shaping contemporary Asia and modem intelligence practices.

Hevia begins by demolishing a familiar, if not cherished, metaphor: the term “Great Game.” The “Anglo-Russian rivalry,” he points out, was not the romantic adventure characterized by Kipling. During the 19th century, the British fought two bloody wars with Afghanistan, in addition to “repeated clashes on the Northwest Frontier of India,” (p. 9) He also makes a strong case that the term was not coined, as Peter Hopkirk and others have suggested, by Arthur Conolly shortly before his execution.[2] (pp. 10-11) It evolved as a metaphor as historians wrote about the era.

Early in the 19th century, intelligence needs concerned terrain, security of supply lines, and statistics about the enemy. Initially, the requirements were met by officers leading small groups to map terrain and collect data about people and conditions in regions they visited. Sometimes they were charged with negotiating agreements with local chieftains. By the late 1870s, the British army was responsible for providing intelligence for India’s defense.

Hevia discusses the gradual reforms in intelligence organization, training, collection, and reporting that occurred and gives examples of their application in Afghanistan, India, and China. Espionage is not forgotten, and the need to weigh carefully information from spies is stressed. At the same time, he shows how local culture gradually became an important factor in collection and assessment.

In the chapter on the “uses of intelligence,” Hevia describes a well-organized intelligence system whose products—route books, maps, intelligence reports, and area handbooks—were considered by leaders in India and London during planning and war games. Sometimes the conclusions drawn by different staff elements were not the same, and disputes arose. In one example, strength figures and other statistics were challenged, as was the failure to adequately address military capabilities. (pp. 155-56) In other instances, there were political disagreements and challenges from the press. Hevia deals at length with the impact both had on public opinion and military intelligence.

Many of the intelligence and geopolitical issues dealt with in The Imperial Security State have a contemporary resonance, and Hevia concludes with a discussion of the parallels for Britain and the United States. He also recognizes the new aspects of modem insurgency, including “social network analysis,” which is an extension of the need for cultural awareness. (p. 263) On this point, the book ends with an Afghan poem that shows another side of the culture. This book is thoroughly documented and will be of value to military historians, analysts, and contemporary critics alike.

[1] Peake, Hayden B. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (20, 2, Fall/Winter, 2013, p. 132). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found online at

[2] Hopkirk, Peter (1992). The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia. New York: Kodansha International [LCCN: 92016925]

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