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  • Of Corporations and Caste Heads: Urban Rule in Company Madras, 1640–1720
  • Aparna Balachandran

This paper examines the ways in which the colonial port city of Madras was envisioned and governed from its founding in the mid seventeenth century to the early decades of the eighteenth century. Early East India Company records suggest that Madras was conceived of as a global city, a crucial hub in a world - wide network of commerce with a multi - racial and multi - lingual population that set it apart from the Tamil hinterland. The city was imagined as a civic space that incorporated different sections of its heterogeneous population into the processes of quotidian lawmaking and enforcement. This urban vision with its assumption that the city’s myriad inhabitants had a real investment in its welfare was underscored by a discourse of Protestant toleration and mercantile collaboration.

While membership to the Madras Corporation was restricted to the city’s commercial elite, its presence represented a period of experimentation in everyday urban governance as civic authority was exercised by the Madras government through its recognition of, and collaboration and negotiations with, local big - men or periyaal of different kinds. In this context, possibly the most interesting phenomenon was the creation of the category of the urban “cast head” by the government, a position that was closely associated with the assumption of civic responsibilities, particularly in the form of participation in debates around the taxation of the inhabitants of Madras.

Conceptually, the paper attempts to make two interconnected claims. First, that the quotidian negotiations of the Madras government with the city’s caste heads allowed urban laboring groups - albeit in a limited and mediated way - to be involved in the processes of everyday rule. Second, that a focus, on the earlier, often neglected period of colonial urbanization, underscores the ramifications of the dissipation of the practices and ethos of urban governance that began to take place in the second half of the eighteenth century.1 By this time, the acquisition of a territorial empire by the Company was reflected in the transformation of the institutions of rule and the organization of urban space and would translate into the exclusion of subaltern groups from the civic arena and everyday governance, as they became increasingly racialized and high caste in character.

The “Gentlemen” of the City: The Founding of the Madras Corporation

The Madras government possessed from the very beginning a fairly developed sense of self as the sovereign, legitimate ruler of the city and its environs 2. Indeed, what has been perceived by scholars as a period of ad - hoc rule dictated by business interests alone 3 can be read as one of experimentation in urban governance, underscored by an understanding of the colonial city as a civic space in which its inhabitants were invested participants. The heterogeneity of the population of Madras and in particular, the racial diversity of its mercantile elite, was a key lens through which Company officials understood the city in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. It was testament to the idea that Madras was distinct from the rest of South India, and had to, necessarily be governed quite differently in order to ensure its continuing welfare and prosperity. Thus, the Charter creating the Corporation suggested that as unique as Madras was from the rest of the Tamil country, it was similar to other commercial outposts with large, varied populations and that therefore, the most efficient way of governing it was through an institution which in some form or the other was present in these places.4 In all likelihood, the model for the Corporation was the Portuguese system of colonial camaras that were scattered throughout its empire and modeled on the municipal government in Lisbon.5

At the same time, the rationale behind the founding of the Corporation did not lie in the functionalist secular detachment of a trader-governor alone; as recent scholarship has demonstrated, the East India Company possessed a very strong sense of Protestant self-hood and purpose.6 The philosophy of impartial, neutral governance that was supposedly the corner stone of urban rule in Company Madras was embedded in a very strong notion of Christian, Protestant toleration...

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