Notes on Colonial-Imperial knowledge formation

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from gt-nana’s stamp album, hand-dated 1919

A number of scholars of British India have sought to understand the ways in which British power was exercised through constructing knowledge about Indian societies, including their histories and literatures, languages and geographies. At one end of the spectrum, intellectual followers of Edward Said argue that the British imposed their own knowledge and cultural forms on India. At the other end, some historians argue that the British had necessarily to work with what they found, relied on local informants, and had to tailor any ‘exotic’ ideas from Britain to different Indian contexts so as to make their rule acceptable.

One important scholar of the second school of thought is Eugene Irschick, of University of California Berkeley. In his 1994 work Dialogue and History: Constructing South India, 1795-1895, Irschick presents an argument that the British and south Indians mutually constructed narratives about the past (including a Tamil ‘golden age’) in order to construct socio-political regimes, including the sedentary village-based tax system.

Irschick summarises his underlying argument that ‘structures of meaning and institutions are cultural products negotiated by a large number of persons from every level of society in a given place and time…a single individual cannot produce meaning, a cultural development, or an institution by herself or himself’ (Preface, p ix).

Irschick argues, contra Edward Said, that the response of Indian locals to the British administration, including the information or knowledge they provided about local property and tax relations, was integral to the property regime that emerged under British rule. Moreover, south Indian rulers often exercised a considerable degree of independence from the British power. Hence, British rule was not hegemonic in the sense that the governance regimes instituted were the result of an imposed and totalizing discourse of the imperial power. Nor were they institutionally dominant. Rather they were the product of complex interactions between British administrators and indigenes and involved ‘heteroglot’ features or multiple voices and the contest between different interest groups. In summary, the construction of knowledge or meaning in the imperial settings of south India was a ‘dialogic’ process. (pp 8-9) Irschick expostulates:

Moreover, the segmentary organization of local polity enabled the population to develop significant arenas of juridical power not subject to formal British authority for many years. In the nineteenth century, after the British evolved their bureaucratic structure and a system of living in specific spatial areas set apart from the local population, there were hundreds of domains on the subcontinent where British authority was altogether lacking or uncertain. The shakiness of British dominance enabled these regions to serve throughout the period as critical sites for productive epistemological projects….

In the long term, therefore, scientific [or bureaucratic, utilitarian] discourse and the institutions that represent it create a negotiated, heteroglot construction shaped by both the weak and the strong, the colonized and the colonizer, from the present and the past. Thus, it is not possible to find a single, definite origin to these meanings and institutions. They are neither ‘European’ or ‘indigenous’. We must not essentialize any of the positions held by those involved in the dialogue. Equally important, we must recognise that the voices speaking at any given moment are tied to that specific historic instant. (pp 9-10).

In other words, knowledge about the present and the past of south Indian society was the product of a number of interacting sources and interests, making the institutions produced by this dialogic process a new creation, neither native nor exotic. At the same time, the participants were responding to the real-world contexts – economic, political, ideological – of their interactions, making their institutional creations potentially quite local and particular. As Irshick articulates, ‘discourse develops to deal with new historical requirements’. (p 11)

Sir Christopher Bayly’s work on Indian information orders and the British administration of India (Empire and Information, 1996) built in part on Irschick’s analysis, seeking to describe how a new Indian ecumene or public sphere was created through information and knowledge exchange and the creation of new print cultures from the 1830s especially. Bayly’s more recent work on Indian intellectual history (Recovering Liberties, 2012) can be compared with this earlier work. Bayly’s idea of Indians responding to western or British liberal ideas from within their indigenous worldviews and contexts, in an ‘upward hermeneutic’, takes Indian intellectual and political contexts seriously, while detailing the engagement of sectors of the Indian elite with new constitutional and governmental ideas from Britain, including ideas about representative government and independent courts.

Irschick’s Dialogue and History also draws connections between the newly constructed information and agricultural orders of South India and conceptions of citizenship in a ‘modern’ state. Irschick argues that:

the privileging of sedentarization resulted from an attempt on the part of both British and Indians to define citizenship strictly in terms of a society whose members possessed given places of residence, who were embedded, and who did not move about. The focus on sedentary society emerged as part of a general development in which the British and local agricultural groups interacted to create a high place for agriculture as the basis of the state.

In essence, European and local groups shared a conception about the quintessential mark of citizenship in a modern unitary state. Agriculture and the transferability of land, then, became the basic form of economic life in India and elsewhere. (p 191)

Irschick captures this construction of a ‘normative village’ as making people residents or citizens, as ‘giv[ing] them an address’. (p 192)

In the islands of New Zealand, British missionary knowledge and culture, followed by state culture, also intersected with indigenous (Maori) knowledge and contexts to create new knowledge and ideas about politics and society. The very conceptions of ‘Maori’ and ‘New Zealand’ are arguably two of these. Such connections and processes of historical change have not been adequately considered in New Zealand historiography.

From the Archives…

My MA thesis of 2007-08 on New Zealand parliamentary debates of the 1850s-60s emphasized the way history imbued the consciousness of the Victorians. In particular, when conceptualizing the history of the indigenous people Victorian New Zealanders encountered, they placed them in their own civilizational history: as Europe’s history had once been peopled by savages and barbarians who were civilised over time by the influences of religion, law, science, arts and commerce (in varying degrees depending on the perspective), so Māori could become civilized through similar influences. It was not a racial/ racialist discourse, rather an historical and jurisprudential one.

This ‘civilizational perspective’ (ref. Peter Mandler) was reiterated to me again today when looking at catalogues of early New Zealand libraries. I was struck by the prominence of history as a category. In fact in the 1861 catalogue of the Auckland Provincial Council library, and in the 1867 catalogue of the Canterbury Provincial Council library, history was the first category of arrangement. Photos of the first pages of these are appended.

And then I was reading historical anthropologist Bernard S Cohn’s analysis of colonialism’s forms of knowledge. What leads his list of modalities of knowledge? Answer: history, or the ‘historiographic modality’:

In British India, this modality is the most complex, pervasive, and powerful, underlying a number of the other more specific modalities. History, for the British, has an ontological power in providing the assumptions about how the real social and natural worlds are constituted. History in its broadest sense was a zone of debate over the ends and means of their rulership in India.

Bernard S Cohn, ‘Colonialism and its forms of knowledge’, in S Howe, ed., The New Imperial Histories Reader (Routledge, 2010), p 119.

I’ve also been reading J G A Pocock on history and the subaltern. But that should wait for another post.

Reading… Thomas Babington Macaulay

If any Briton represents the image of the statesman-scholar of the nineteenth century, it is Thomas Babington (“T B”) Macaulay. Son of the anti-slave trade campaigner, Zachery Macaulay, he was a pre-eminent man of letters of the Victorian age, a parliamentarian and orator acclaimed by many, a Cabinet minister, and for a time an administrator of Britain’s Indian empire who drafted the Indian criminal code.

Some excerpts from my early reading:

Minute on Indian Education, 1835:

“[7] …We now come to the gist of the matter. We have a fund to be employed as Government shall direct for the intellectual improvement of the people of this country. The simple question is, what is the most useful way of employing it?

[8] All  parties seem to be agreed on one point, that the dialects commonly spoken among the natives of this part of India contain neither literary nor scientific information, and are moreover so poor and rude that, until they are enriched from some other quarter, it will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them.  It seems to be admitted on all sides, that the intellectual improvement of those classes of the people who have the means of pursuing higher studies can at present be affected only by means of some language not vernacular amongst them…

[33] To sum up what I have said. I think it clear that we are not fettered by the Act of Parliament of 1813, that we are not fettered by any pledge expressed or implied, that we are free to employ our funds as we choose, that we ought to employ them in teaching what is best worth knowing, that English is better worth knowing than Sanscrit or Arabic, that the natives are desirous to be taught English, and are not desirous to be taught Sanscrit or Arabic, that neither as the languages of law nor as the languages of religion have the Sanscrit and Arabic any peculiar claim to our encouragement, that it is possible to make natives of this country thoroughly good English scholars, and that to this end our efforts ought to be directed.

[34] In one point I fully agree with the gentlemen to whose general views I am opposed. I feel with them that it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern,  –a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.”

[Note: the much-maligned and oft-quoted statement from the Minute is ‘a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, etc…’. I have selected a few other statements which are not often quoted when discussing the Minute, and there are a number of others that could be quoted. Macaulay’s key point is really to enquire how ‘useful knowledge’ can be spread through the Indian populace. In order to do that, Macaulay proposed the development of a new civil service class, trained in English, to translate English/European literature and knowledge into the vernacular languages of India (ie., not Persian, Arabic, and Sancrit because those were ‘classical languages’ only understood by very few educated classes). It is a very utilitarian argument, but one that also anticipates the emergence of Indian nationalism. It must be read together with key documents in the Orientalist-Anglicist debate on what education the British government should be funding in India and also with Macaulay’s other key statements on India.]

Speech on the (Great) Reform Bill, 1831:

“… The question of Parliamentary Reform is still behind. But signs, of which it is impossible to misconceive the import, do most clearly indicate, that, unless that question also be speedily settled, property and order, and all the institutions of this great monarchy, will be exposed to fearful peril. Is it possible, that Gentlemen long versed in high political affairs cannot read these signs? Is it possible that they can really believe that the Representative system of England, such as it now is, will last till the year 1860? If not, for what would they have us wait? Would they have us wait merely that we may show to all the world how little we have profited by our own recent experience? Would they have us wait, that we may once again hit the exact point where we can neither refuse with authority, nor concede with grace? Would they have us wait, that the numbers of the discontented party may become larger, its demands higher, its feeling more acrimonious, its organization more complete? Would they have us wait till the whole tragi-comedy of 1827 has been acted over again; till they have been brought into office by a cry of “No Reform! “to be reformers, as they were once before brought into office by a cry of “No Popery! “to be emancipators? Have they obliterated from their minds—gladly perhaps would some among them obliterate from their minds — the transactions of that year? And have they forgotten all the transactions of the succeeding year? Have they forgotten how the spirit of liberty in Ireland, debarred from its natural outlet, found a vent by forbidden passages? Have they forgotten how we were forced to indulge the Catholics in all the license of rebels, merely because we chose to withhold from them the liberties of subjects? Do they wait for associations more formidable than that of the Corn Exchange,— for contributions larger than the Rent,— for agitators more violent than those who, three years ago, divided with the King and the Parliament, the sovereignty of Ireland? Do they wait for that last and most dreadful paroxysm of popular rage, —for that last and most cruel test of military fidelity? Let them wait, if their past experience shall induce them to think that any high honour or any exquisite pleasure is to be obtained by a policy like this. Let them wait, if this strange and fearful infatuation be indeed upon them,—that they should not see with their eyes, or hear with their ears, or understand with their heart. But let us know our interest and our duty better. Turn where we may, —within,—around,—the voice of great events is proclaiming to us, Reform, that you may preserve. Now, therefore, while every thing at home and abroad forebodes ruin to those who persist in a hopeless struggle against the spirit of the age,— now, while the crash of the proudest throne of the continent is still resounding in our ears,—now, while the roof of a British palace affords an ignominious shelter to the exiled heir of forty kings,—now, while we see on every side ancient institutions subverted, and great societies dissolved,—now, while the heart of England is still sound,—now, while the old feelings and the old associations retain a power and a charm which may too soon pass away,—now, in this your accepted time,— now in this your day of salvation,—take counsel, not of prejudice,—not of party spirit,—not of the ignominious pride of a fatal consistency,—but of history,—of reason,—of the ages which are past,— of the signs of this most portentous time. Pronounce in a manner worthy of the expectation with which this great Debate has been anticipated, and of the long remembrance which it will leave behind. Renew the youth of the State. Save property divided against itself. Save the multitude, endangered by their own ungovernable passions. Save the aristocracy, endangered by its own unpopular power. Save the greatest, and fairest, and most highly civilized community that ever existed, from calamities which may in a few days sweep away all the rich heritage of 60 many ages of wisdom and glory. The danger is terrible. The time is short. If this Bill should be rejected, I pray to God that none of those who concur in rejecting it may ever remember their votes! with unavailing regret, amidst the wreck of laws, the confusion of ranks, the spoliation of property, and the dissolution of social order.”

http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1831/mar/02/ministerial-plan-of-parliamentary-reform

Review of von Ranke’s History of the Popes (Edinburgh Review, 1840):

“… She [the Catholic Church] saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishment that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished in Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.”

[Note: the New Zealander here is almost certainly an indigenous New Zealander. That was the name given to Māori at the time. It reflects a central theme in British intellectual thought concerning the decay of empire.]

imperial projects

Another couple of interesting ‘imperial projects’ currently in progress:

Alan Lester is leading a project called ‘Snapshots of Empire’ based at the University of Sussex. This project will analyse in detail three separate years of correspondence (1838, 1857, 1879) coming in and going out of the Colonial Office and East India Company/ India Office to see how the empire was administered ‘everywhere and all at once’.

‘Soldiers of Empire’ is a project led by Charlotte McDonald at the University of Victoria, Wellington that focuses on the ways in which war and British garrisons took people, goods, ideas and habits around the world. The research ‘aims to put a face to the British army and navy presence in New Zealand’.

Reading… C A Bayly

So I’m reading Christopher Bayly at the moment. When he passed away last year he was one of the leading historians of British India, the British empire generally, and also of a new global history. Richard Drayton gave a nice write-up of Bayly’s work in his obituary in the Guardian.

I’ve been reading his 1998 work Origins of nationality in South Asia: patriotism and ethical government in the making of modern India. In it he argues that 20th century Indian nationalism had older roots in pre-colonial India, in the form of various communal and political attachments to place and institutions.

He uses comparative method to trace patterns in the development of Indian nationalism that are seen in European/British contexts, including a ‘traditional patriotism’ that involved ‘attachment to the territory, custom, political and religious institutions which had developed in parts of the western world before the rise of plebiscitary nationalism, the doctrine of popular sovereignty and the modern state’ (p 4).

Was ‘India’ a mere ‘geographical expression’ or an area that expressed strong regional loyalities? 19th century British contemporaries thought that different states did express a strong ‘nationalism’, although others were more like ‘states of plunder’. By the 1820s, one British officer thought Bharatpur had become ‘the very Palladium of native pride and independence’ (p 51).

In the Epilogue, Bayly gives an insightful account of his own biography and historiographical journey. In a poke at post-modernist/-colonial approaches, he believes the abandonment by Indian historians over the previous 20 years of political and economic history, in favour of histories of cultural and ‘discourse’, was ‘retrogressive’ and representing ‘a syndrome of traumatized denial’ by historians of the ongoing significance of global capitalism and an ideological Indian politics of the present day. (pp 317-318)

Bayly argues that continuity or ‘distorted continuity’ in Indian politics/society under British rule was more significant than in other places, such as Latin America or Africa: ‘… Indians recruited from pre-colonial service and commercial communities continued to control the bulk of mercantile capital and title to land and to populate the lower ranks of the army, judiciary and police…’ (p 319)

He rather provocatively notes how Ronald Inden and Bernard Cohn considered the Subaltern Studies volumes of the 1980s and 1990s as inaugurating a true indigenous and post-colonial historiography. ‘The trajectory of Subaltern Studies from class and resistance to a concern with discourse and colonial knowledge really represented the replacement of E.P. Thomson with an Americanized version of Michael Foucault. This is  what Sumit Sarkar has deplored in Writing Social History, his polemic against the  “disapperance of the subaltern” from Subaltern Studies, and the tendency of young Indian historians to try to be “with it” by hitching their colours to the mast of post-modernism. Actually, if a true “indigenous, post-colonial historiography” is coming into existence (and this is probably impossible), it is  perhaps in the regional universities and sometimes in regional languages and has little to do with the conferences, academic exchanges and refereed journals of the international elite.’ (p 321).

Food for thought, Sir Christopher.