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Continuity and Discontinuity in Eighteenth-Century Indian Historiography

From: Eighteenth-Century Studies
Volume 42, Number 3, Spring 2009
pp. 453-458 | 10.1353/ecs.0.0060

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Toward the beginning of Ideology and Empire in Eighteenth-Century India, Robert Travers offers an excellent summary of the historiography of eighteenth-century India. In the view of the old imperial historians, "India had descended into a dark age after the Mughals imposed only a fragile and temporary order on its diverse peoples" (10), and British colonizers such as Clive, Hastings, and Cornwallis brought back law and order. More recently, especially under the influence of Edward Said's Orientalism, these same colonizers were cast in a more sinister light as plunderers and exploiters of India. At this time, historians challenged the idea of post-Mughal decline in the eighteenth century. Today, Travers explains, there are two main approaches to the historiography of eighteenth-century India: one that emphasizes "'threads of continuity,' especially in the endurance of 'intermediary groups' of officials, merchants and land-holders" (12, with quotations from C. A. Bayly's Indian Society), between Mughal rule and the administration of the East India Company; and one that stresses the ruptures between these two governments. In different ways, all three historical works under review here situate themselves between these two approaches, while Gibbes's novel provides literary evidence. In addition, they all focus (at least to some extent) on the second half of the eighteenth century, when the EIC was establishing its power over the subcontinent and when questions of continuity and discontinuity were most pressing.

Travers himself believes that both approaches are too narrow because they focus on India as a nation, and he hopes to connect colony and metropole in an examination of colonial state-formation. Ideology and Empire "emphasizes the way that empire was shaped by the encounter with the hierarchies, conventions and ideals of indigenous politics; but also how imperial power worked to set limits to this encounter" (14). More specifically, Travers examines, mostly in chronological order, how different ideas of an ancient Indian constitution were used to legitimate different versions of British empire between the 1750s and the 1790s. His first two chapters lay out the terms of the ideological discussion and look at the situation in Bengal after the revolution of 1756/7. In contrast to other historians, Travers argues that the London EIC kept lines of communication with India working smoothly and exerted considerable control there. Developments in India were discussed in three main terms: sovereignty, constitution, and political economy—commentators were interested in who really ruled in Bengal, by what laws, and to whose economic benefit. Generally, assessments of EIC rule extended from euphoria to anxiety to disillusionment, while Mughal government was inversely characterized as despotic or benign. However, the idea of Oriental despotism prevailed in the 1760s.

Next, Travers looks at the confrontation between Warren Hastings and his nemesis Philip Francis in the early 1770s (mostly through published treatises and unpublished correspondence from a wide range of archives). Their two parties outlined competing visions for the future of Bengal, both of which appealed to ancient constitutions. Hastings suggested a pragmatic settlement with a significant role for monied interests, while Francis proposed a plan based on principled constitutionalism that equated local zamindars (landholders) with the British landed gentry. This required a radical rereading of the Mughal past that acknowledged that the emperors were not just despots and that made a crude distinction between Mughal rulers and Hindu subjects. The fifth chapter uses court documents from the Calcutta Supreme Court of 1774–81 to demonstrate that Hastings devised a plan to unite royal and EIC courts under a stronger imperial sovereignty, but also used local customs and traditional Indian laws—all the while appealing to universal reason. In the 1780s, Burke still used the rhetoric of the ancient Indian constitution to attack Hastings, but Cornwallis instituted a new constitution between 1786 and 1793 with a racial hierarchy in which "respectable" British officials ruled over supposedly corrupt indigenous Indians. The years of the 1770s, when Asiatic despotism had been questioned but the stereotype of Muslim rulers and Hindu subjects established, were forgiven and forgotten as the labor pains of British India.

Ideology and Empire succeeds in its aim to show that "while there was a clash of different political cultures [British and Indian], these...



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