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  • The Early Roots of Liberal Imperialism:"The science of a legislator" in eighteenth-century India
  • Anna Clark and Aaron Windel

The retiring East India Company servant faced a long journey back to England. To pass the time on board ship, he painstakingly copied savage critiques of empire from Enlightenment thinkers such as Adam Smith and the Abbé Raynal into his journals. Despite his years of service to the Empire, the author believed it had ravaged India. Of course, many of his EIC counterparts also criticized empire. But these journals, anonymous and long forgotten, are unusual in that the author agonized over the tension between his own complicity in corruption and these Enlightenment critiques. His writings can help us understand why liberal critiques of empire produced liberal imperialism, rather than anti-imperialism.

Who was the author of these manuscripts? The notebooks had been attributed to Warren Hastings in the Ames Library, Minnesota, and yet they criticize Hastings harshly. The last page of the journals provides a crucial clue: the author records that he left Calcutta in January 1790 on the ship Pigot. Richard Johnson, a servant of the East India Company, left India on the ship Pigot on that date.1 His papers in the East India Office matched the handwriting of the Ames documents, and the dates of his career matched the dates of his diary. Johnson was best known as an orientalist whose collection of Indian art formed the backbone of the British Library's collection of Indian miniatures.2 In the company's records he often appears as assistant to the Resident at Oudh, as resident at Hyderabad and as a member of the Board of Revenue.

The Johnson materials can be treated as a microhistory of the interplay between a man's private reading and his actions in public life. Rather than a traditional intellectual history tracing coherent influences, this microhistory reveals a fragmented consciousness torn between principles and pragmatism. Johnson's journals represent an endless self-scrutiny as he attempted, through reading and private writing, to measure his own actions against the philosophical principles that inspired him. But as Emma Rothschild observes, this leaves the problem of microhistories: how typical is the subject? What is the significance for larger historical processes? For Johnson was neither the subaltern villager nor erudite miller of the microhistories whose authors want to rescue their subjects from the condescension of history; nor was he an important, successful figure whose private diaries can shed light on public events.3 His career was marked by obscure failures, and he never put any of his enlightened schemes of government into practice.

But because Johnson constantly reflected on and quoted from the books he read, we can use his case to address key historical questions of agency and determinism—a task for which John Brewer has recently argued that microhistories are useful.4 First, we can assess the extent to which discourses shape people's actions, since we have copious evidence of what Johnson read and what he did. But second, by comparing Johnson with another East India Company servant, Thomas Law, who read in similar Enlightenment sources, we can go beyond the microhistory of one individual to assess the more complex interplay of personality, circumstance and culture. This also will help us understand the genesis of liberal imperialism. Law is somewhat better known since he had an impact on policy—he claimed to have influenced Cornwallis's Permanent Settlement of land tenures in 1793. In fact, Anna Clark had initially hypothesized that the journals might have been written by Law, whose voluminous public writings reveal similar interests to those of Johnson in political and economic reforms. Law started his career as a revenue collector in remote Bihar. Deeply influenced by Montesquieu and Adam Smith, he persuaded the Board of Revenue to implement some of his ambitious plans for reform of imperial management. He eventually became alienated from the company and emigrated to the United States as a strong supporter of liberal democracy. While we do not have evidence of Law's innermost thoughts from his time in India, his Indian career is well documented, and his papers from his American time reveal his dreams...

Additional Information

ISSN
1532-5768
Launched on MUSE
2013-07-15
Open Access
No
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