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  • Race and the Webs of Empire: Aryanism from India to the Pacific
  • Tony Ballantyne

Knowledge, particularly about cultural difference, has emerged as a central theme in recent studies of imperialism. Largely, if not entirely, encouraged by Foucault’s work on power/knowledge and Said’s paradigmatic studies of Orientalism, scholars from across the humanities have increasingly highlighted the centrality of the cultural projects of empire building. Studies of colonial disciplines (from cartography to psychology), re-readings of canonical texts, and a new recognition of cultural manifestations of imperial ideologies (from advertisements for soap to the place of Shakespeare in colonial classrooms) have fundamentally reshaped our understandings of the sources, structure and consequences of imperialism. 1 Central to this new scholarship has been a fundamental reappraisal of racial thought: no longer some epiphenomenona of empire, race — a concept that emerged unevenly over time and space — is now seen as being fundamental to the discourses of European imperialism from the sixteenth century on. 2

This essay re-examines the development of Aryanism within the British empire in the long nineteenth-century. A range of case studies have identified Aryanism — the notion that certain communities shared cultural features as a result of their sharing a common ‘Aryan stock’ — as one of the most significant racializing discourses in contexts as divergent as India and Nigeria, Ireland and Hawai’i, Argentina and New Zealand. 3 Rather than simply recounting the development of this domain of knowledge narrowly within one colony, this essay argues that a careful examination of Aryanism reveals the profoundly mobile character of racial knowledge and discourses about cultural difference within the British empire, a reality that necessitates a trans-national analysis imperial knowledge production. To achieve this end, this essay reevaluates the place of Aryanism in the historiography of South Asia and the Pacific, revealing the important elisions that can arise from a ‘national’ history of racial thought. By sketching the conscious transplantation of ethnological models drawn from British India to the New Zealand frontier in the second half of the nineteenth century, I hope to recover the important networks and exchanges that shaped the empire and to underscore the fundamentally intertextual nature of colonial knowledge. Before mapping these ‘webs of empire’, it is important to begin by sketching the inherited spatial models that order most studies of British imperialism.

I. The spatial imagination of imperial/colonial histories

Over the last decade there have been growing calls for trans-national histories and many historians have insisted that the construction of new analytical models that recover the movement of people, ideas, ideologies, commodities and information across the borders of the nation-states are urgently needed in this global moment. Traditionally, of course, history is conceived of as a temporal discipline in which the fundamental structures of research, analysis, and narrativization are concerned with change over time. But, as we are increasingly aware, history is also a spatial discipline and historical knowledge is also structured by spatial parameters, whether these units are continental, cultural, regional, or, most frequently, national. Calls to fundamentally reorder the spatial basis of historical writing and write histories that look beyond the nation pose a fundamental challenge to history, a discipline that has produced enabling narratives for so many nations and that continues to depend heavily upon state-sponsored archives, institutions, and funding. Breaking this ‘narrative contract’ — to borrow Sudipta Kaviraj’s memorable phrase — between history and the nation-state is difficult, yet this project is pressing as we seek to understand both the complex forces that have framed the asymmetries of our contemporary world and the future shape of the discipline of history itself. 4

The need to revisit what we might term the ‘spatial imagination’ of historical writing is particularly vital within the specific context of British imperial and post-colonial history, as the vast majority of historians continue to use one of two models. The first and perhaps dominant historiographical tradition has been the production of metropolitan-focused imperial histories, a tradition revivified by Peter Cain and A. G. Hopkins’s model of ‘gentlemanly capitalism’ and, more recently, by David Hancock’s study of the role of London merchants in the integration of an eighteenth-century Atlantic...

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