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  • Excluding and Including "Natives of India":Early-Nineteenth-Century British-Indian Race Relations in Britain
  • Michael H. Fisher (bio)

Imperial Incorporations and Discriminations

The British, Ottoman, and other empires, in contrast to nation-states, claimed by their very nature authority over a variety of subject peoples. This condition drove empires toward contradictory goals: making subject peoples feel they had a stake in the empire while simultaneously differentiating them from the rulers and excluding them from full participation in the actual exercise of state power. The broad bifurcating concepts these empires constructed to distinguish between ruler and ruled often appeared to work adequately overall. In practice, however, such discriminating criteria changed over time and often broke down in particular cases as a result of the definition's inherent contradictions and volatility, the competition among elite groups, and also the resistances and adaptations by individuals subject to such classifications.

Both the British and the Ottomans, priding themselves on their "modernity" and "rule of law," sought to separate peoples through legal and administrative regulations, based on allegedly objective criteria. Yet these criteria shifted over time. India and the other British colonies in Asia lay at some remove, encouraging the British to establish distinctions based on "race" (variously defined), reinforced by the spatial distance between rulers and ruled. In contrast, the contiguous nature of the Ottoman domains made it more difficult for the Ottoman state to carry out similar regulatory action. Instead, the Ottomans applied religion as a major measure of difference between ruler and ruled, stressing the role of Islam as defined by the Ottoman sultan, who was simultaneously the Sunni caliph. For both empires, however, difficulties in applying exact legal boundaries arose from the changing cultural constructions asserted by rival imperial authorities with disparate interests. Simultaneously, these emerging rules were also challenged—for the British in particular—by people of "mixed race," religious converts, and immigrants from the colony who settled in the imperial metropolis. Such marginal or anomalous examples reveal the constructed nature of imperial binary differentiations and their inconsistent putative underlying principles. [End Page 303]

This essay concentrates on one instance of this larger process: how during early British colonialism in Asia (up to the mid-nineteenth century), various groups and individuals present in London clashed over the definition and implications of the particularly crucial classification "native of India." This category, by virtually any definition, included the largest number of people within the British Empire. Yet contests over the term's limits and meaning developed in Britain not only as an issue affecting distant millions in far-off India but also particularly in response to the presence of tens of thousands of people from India living in Britain. These legal and moral debates had significant consequences for the British government, for the East India Company's Court of Directors, and, of course, for the diverse people at various times officially designated natives of India.

The Context: Britons and Others in Home and Colony

Over the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, extensive British official and popular discourses over the identity of both self and "other" reflected ongoing and profound changes domestically and externally. In Britain the very definition of "British" itself was emerging from both internal developments and external wars in Europe and the rest of the world.1 Controversy raged as to who among the British-born would be included as British or not (e.g., English Catholics or Dissenters, Jews, and the Irish). Only Anglicans had access to certain state offices and social supports, yet converts counted. Further, as Kathleen Wilson explains, "'Race,' . . . like gender and ethnicity, was a historically contingent construction that did not describe empirical, static or absolute conditions in societies, but positional relationships made and unmade in historical circumstances and manipulated in the pursuit of power. . . . [Race] was identified and signified through religion, custom, language, climate, aesthetics and historical time, as much as physiognomy and biology."2 Immigrants to Britain could adapt themselves to British norms in many of these categories, thus renegotiating their race. These included men and women of all classes from India coming to England since the early seventeenth century (about as long as Britons have been sailing to India).3