What is a tribe?

Mahmood Mamdani

A new form of colonialism was born in the second half of the 19th century, largely in response to the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Of its many theorists by far the most influential was Henry Maine, a brilliant historian of jurisprudence, barrister, journalist, colonial civil servant and eventually master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Maine made an eloquent case for the historicity and agency of the colonised, as part of an attempt to reconstitute the colonial project on a more durable basis. In doing so, he distinguished the West from the non-West, universal civilisation from local custom and, crucially, the settler from the native, thereby laying the groundwork for a theory of nativism. If the settler was modern, the native was not; if the settler was defined by history, the native was defined by geography; if modern polities were defined by legislation and sanction, those of the native were defined by habitual observance.

Within a few years of the Mutiny, Maine took up a post as legal member of the viceroy’s Executive Council. Anyone being groomed for the India Service and, indeed, for the Colonial Service had to read his works. From Lyall in India to Swettenham in Malaya, Shepstone in Natal, Cromer in Egypt, Lugard in Nigeria and Uganda, Harold MacMichael in Sudan and Donald Cameron in Tanganyika, colonial administrators throughout the empire absorbed his arguments – above all those he put forward in Ancient Law (1861), the first bestselling book on jurisprudence – and translated them into policies. The result was a reinvention of ‘the native’, whose agency and legal personality would henceforth be regarded as tribal by colonial scholarship and determined as such by colonial power. Tribalism is reified ethnicity.

It also led to a form of government, incubated in post-1857 India and applied fully in those parts of Africa conquered after the Berlin Congress. Its architects claimed that this mode of rule, which they referred to as ‘indirect’, was no more than a pragmatic solution to a dearth of resources, making for a weak state with a benign, superficial impact. But indirect rule was a response to stark challenges at the geographical extremes of empire, beginning with the Indian Mutiny and ending with the Morant Bay rebellion in Jamaica in 1865. Together, these events produced a crisis of mission and of justification. The assimilationist project, of which the model was the Roman Empire, was seen to have failed. In the period of reflection that followed, the colonial mission underwent a change from one of civilisation to conservation, and of progress to order.

Between 1757 and 1857, the inhabitants of two-thirds of the landmass of South Asia had been brought under the rule of the East India Company, either directly as subjects or indirectly as princes under protective custody. The main outlines of the utilitarian and evangelical agendas – the ideological turbines of the colonial project – were clear by 1850: to abolish the Mughal court and to impose British laws and technology, along with Christianity, on India. But in 1857, all but 7,796 of the 139,000 sepoys of the Bengal Army turned on their British masters. Liberal utilitarian ideas had sustained a severe blow and the evangelists were in retreat – largely as the result, in Maine’s words, of a failure to understand the nature of ‘native Indian religious and social belief’. He called for a shift of focus, away from the Orientalist preoccupation with sacred and secular texts to the study of daily life. The logic of native institutions, he argued, was to be found in local customs and traditions, less prevalent on the coast, where the Orientalists were apt to go looking, than in the hinterlands. ‘For it is in the cities of the coast and their neighbourhood,’ he argued in his Rede Lecture in Cambridge in 1875,

that there has sprung up, under English influence, a thirst for knowledge, a body of opinions, and a standard of taste, which are wholly new in India. There you may see universities thronged like the European schools of the later middle age … There you may observe an eagerness in the study of Western literature and science not very unlike the enthusiasm of European scholars at the revival of letters. From this part of India come those most interesting samples of the native race who from time to time visit [Britain]; but they are a growth of the coast, and there could be no greater mistake than to generalise from them as to the millions upon millions of men who fill the vast interior mass of India.

Woe betide the utilitarians, ignorant of this ‘real India’, who had concluded that ‘Indians require nothing but School Boards and Normal Schools to turn them into Englishmen,’ or that ‘political institutions could be imported like steam machinery, warranted to stand any climate and to benefit every community.’ This was a vigorous case for separate development.

While sketching out a justification of indirect rule, Maine was also staking a plausible claim to a new science, as he explained in the Rede Lecture: ‘India has given to the world Comparative Philology and Comparative Mythology; it may yet give us a new science not less valuable than the sciences of language and of folklore. I hesitate to call it Comparative Jurisprudence because, if it ever exists, its area will be so much wider than the field of law.’ By ‘wider’, Maine in fact meant more intimate and local: he called for a far richer account of native institutions, including religion and caste, and reiterated the idea of a ‘real India’ beyond the India of ‘Brahminical theory’ embraced by the Orientalists.

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[*] Reviewed by C.A. Bayly in the LRB of 14 July 2011.