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Journal of World History 11.2 (2000) 227-263

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Patrons, Clients, and Empire: The Subordination of Indigenous Hierarchies in Asia and Africa

Colin Newbury
Oxford University

Historians of empire have frequently referred to models of mutual dependency between rulers and subordinate societies. The terminology of subordination covering "subsidiary alliances," "paramountcy," "protectorates," "indirect rule," or "collaboration" indicates a need to account for the ways in which imperial hierarchies functioned in the absence of sustained coercion at the interface between "rulers" and "ruled". The notion of modus vivendi is implicit in this equilibrium, compared with the disequilibrium of conquest. So, too, is the idea of degrees of control and supervision. 1 Others who have emphasized the notion of overt and passive resistance to account for political change within the framework of colonial government still have to explain the more usual amount of accommodation. 2 Moreover, many of the structures utilized by colonial administrations at the district level have not disappeared. Beneath the rhetoric surrounding "colonialism" and "nationalism" there still lies a broad topic concerning the interaction of imperial agents, their political successors, and local leaders in regional histories, and that can benefit from comparative treatment.

The specific topic of this essay is concerned with the ways in which power and authority were exercised through indigenous leaders in a [End Page 227] colonial society. Labels describing this process, cited above, have their uses. Whether they can be held to apply to all types of dependent subordination is open to doubt; and the most common expression--"indirect rule"--is open to the objection that it is often employed outside its original context in British Africa to cover a variety of cases in India and South East Asia. An even bolder example of the search for a comprehensive paradigm is the model of "collaboration," held to apply to both European settler societies and tropical territories. 3 One dissenter has perceived that such a model was not a very great breakthrough by historians: "For what to them was collaboration, anthropologists and political scientists were already discussing as clientelism, including the imperial period." 4 To which historians might well reply that the terminology of patron-client models has been in disarray because of its widespread denotations covering cases of worldwide systems of economic and political dependency in land tenure, marketing, and in recruitment of electoral support, as well as international relations between weak and strong states. 5 In this vista of obligations between unequal partners the only necessary conditions are difference in status and control of resources necessitating a bargain process--labor for land, votes for jobs, payment for protection, and debt servicing. Examples encompass tenurial systems in Egypt, Thailand, Cyrenaica; the politics of rotten boroughs in India; disbursement of loans and scholarships in Colombia; debt-peonage in Bolivia; city hall contracts for kickbacks and immigrant votes for food and jobs in the United States. It is not surprising, therefore, that "clientelism" has held little appeal for those working on imperial administration in the period leading up to decolonization, until some of its lessons were taken up and applied to regional and local history in India. 6

At these different levels of patron-client fixing there would seem to be two broad uses of the term. Fundamentally, the connotation of clientage derives from the anthropologists' definition in the context of [End Page 228] face-to-face exchanges contributing to "an exclusive relation of mutual benefit which holds between two persons defined as socially and politically unequal, and which stresses their solidarity." 7 Similarly, for political scientists like René Lemarchand "clientelism" is an "exchange relationship between actors commanding different resources," indicative of differential status. Such resources extend beyond cattle and slaves to public office and are used to defuse opposition to paramount chiefs through manipulation of competing clients. Lemarchand has also made the important point that patron-client relations can be reversed: "Resources may gravitate into the hands of his clients to such an extent as to make the royal patron a captive of his subordinates." 8 Secondly, the term...