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  • Gunpowder Empires and the Garrison State:Modernity, Hybridity, and the Political Economy of Colonial India, circa 1750-1860
  • Douglas M. Peers (bio)

In 1844 the Mofussilite, an upcountry newspaper in India that was especially popular with army officers and civilians, printed an essay in which was repeated a report from the London Times lamenting the failure of Anglo-Indian society to take adequate notice of recent financial and commercial reverses in Britain. According to the Times, this was no mere oversight on the part of British expatriates in India; instead it was taken as proof that the Raj had yet to break free from what it termed its "politico military phase."1 This juxtaposition of a modern commercial society against a military empire draws attention to a paradox that underlies all efforts at understanding the nature and origins of colonial rule in India; namely, how could a commercial operation like the East India Company, which was so linked to the beginnings of precocious capitalism, not to mention the rise of Western dominance, become so deeply and apparently perpetually embroiled in costly warfare and continue to do so despite—or perhaps because of—the growth of modern industrial society in Britain?2 The tension identified by the Times also exposes the need to work through and move beyond the long-standing and exaggerated distinction that historians have drawn between maritime (read European and modern) empires and land-based (read Asian and premodern) empires, a differentiation that lies at the heart of the military revolution theory. The fact that Britain's Indian Empire was seen as being somehow out of step with metropolitan agendas illustrates the shortcomings of the conventional view that ties British expansion to seaborne commercial imperatives. While the distinction between sea-based and land-based empires may have had some currency in the early modern era, a time when British expansion was undoubtedly tied to naval power and driven by the search for overseas markets, the situation had grown more complex by the nineteenth century. By then, the British in India were very much a land-based empire, their focus having shifted from naval to military power, and their revenues were increasingly dependent on exploiting agrarian production and securing at least the tacit cooperation of large magnates rather than expanding trade networks and striking alliances with local capitalists. In other words, the nineteenth-century Raj was very much a hybrid regime, [End Page 245] one that straddled what has hitherto been declared to be quite distinctively different types of empire, namely, European and Asian imperial formations. As C. A. Bayly has argued, the East India Company "taxed and counted like a western European state [and I would argue was the pioneer in many respects], but allowed many social functions to be monopolized by groups of indigenous administrators and landlords."3 One explanation for this hybridity lies in the way in which warfare conditioned the structures, practices, and ideologies of the colonial state, not to mention the resources at its disposal. As an observer ruefully noted in 1844, "It will, we think, be found that our century of dominion in the East has been one of unintermitted [sic] warfare, or something very like it."4

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The situation that these commentators described—one of almost constant warfare—can be traced back to the eighteenth century. Officials in India in 1766 had come to realize, albeit somewhat obliquely, that their position in India could be secured only by the application of military force. The Court of Directors, the highest authority in the East India Company, were warned by their council in Bengal in 1766: "To us it evidently appears, there remained but the alternative to advance as we have done and grasp at the whole power, or shrink back into our primitive condition of simple merchants; to abandon our possessions, disband our forces, and rest our future hopes on the clemency of Princes who will not easily forget or forgive the superiority we have maintained."5

This then was the scenario that set the context for the rise of the garrison state.6 In its simplest formulation it is characterized by the pervasive presence of the military within the decision-making process...


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pp. 245-258
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