C is for Colonies

Anthony Pagden

  • Edge of Empire: Conquest and Collecting in the East 1750-1850 by Maya Jasanoff
    Fourth Estate, 405 pp, £25.00, August 2005, ISBN 0 00 718009 8

A new history of empire, no longer either triumphalist or cast in the shades of black and white favoured by the post-colonialists, is beginning to be written. It assumes that the metropolis and the colonies were not self-contained realms (as the older ‘imperial history’ often assumed); it recognises that empires were made and ruled by individuals with often very different, even conflicting aspirations. Above all it recognises that all empires were precarious, porous, multicultural and multilingual, and that of all the political orders ever devised they, more than any other, defy simple description or heavy abstraction. Maya Jasanoff’s book – her first – is a brilliant contribution to this literature.

Her theme is not how ‘Others’ were excluded by the imperial process, but the far more elusive, and in the end more illuminating ways in which so many were included in what she calls the ‘rhetoric and systems of empire’. Edge of Empire is about crossing boundaries; about the porousness of culture in the early years of the British Empire; about frontiers, both geographical and mental, and how they are constructed and reconfigured. More precisely, it is about two theatres of contact and conflict: the first is India, during the period when the limited and tenuous hold of a private trading company was being transformed into a virtual state within the state, bent on ‘hollowing out’, as the expression goes, the collection of quasi-independent polities which made up the Mughal Empire. The second is about the clash, which began in India but ended in Egypt, between the two major imperial powers of the 18th century, Britain and France.

In the period from the mid-18th century, when Jasanoff’s story begins, until 1858, when the Crown dissolved the East India Company to create the Indian Empire, the fledgling ‘British Empire’ in India was a constantly expanding multi-ethnic frontier zone, where not only Britons but sundry other Europeans mingled, traded, intermarried and sometimes fought with Indians and with one another. Of the ‘List of Inhabitants residing in Calcutta’ drawn up for Lord Clive in 1766, only 129 of the 231 European males were British. The rest came from Portugal, the German states, Switzerland, Sweden, French Chandernagore and Ireland. Life in this frontier world, as Jasanoff says, was ‘never a two-sided saga of colonisers versus colonised’. This was generally true of any imperial state, whether French Algeria, British Rhodesia or Spanish Peru. But in India the would-be colonisers not only faced complex political societies which – unlike the Berber, the Ndebele or the Quechua – were capable of resisting them for long periods of time, they also encountered cultures they were prepared to recognise as, if not equal to their own, certainly worthy of respect.

Take the great Orientalist Sir William Jones (of whom Jasanoff might have made more), who declared Sanskrit – one of many languages in which he was proficient – to be ‘more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either’. The Persians were, he insisted, a ‘nation equally distinguished in ancient history’ as the Greeks or Romans, and the Persian Hafiz as great a poet as Horace. It was only unfamiliarity which made ignorant Europeans, who knew no language other than their own, praise one and ridicule the other. The same applied to Warren Hastings, governor-general of Bengal from 1773 until 1785, best remembered today as the target of Burke’s fierce condemnation for the ‘Oriental despotism’ with which he had oppressed the Indians, whom Burke described as ‘this unhappy part of our fellow citizens’. The shadow which Burke’s oratory has cast over Hastings’s reputation has occluded his fluency in Persian and Hindi, his sponsorship of translations of Persian histories and the Sanskrit Bhagavat Gita, his compilation of Hindu and Muslim legal codes, as well as his founding of the Calcutta madrassa.

By the mid-19th century, when the Raj had been fully established across the continent and the Empire of India absorbed into the British state, the notion of a ‘two-sided saga’ sometimes came depressingly close to the truth. But in the period described in Edge of Empire, the British were for long merely one interloper among many, more powerful perhaps than others, in particular once the French had been driven out after 1763, but interlopers none the less. And they went to India as interlopers have always done, to make a fortune and acquire the social status they would have been denied at home.

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