- Indian Ink: Script and Print in the Making of the English East India Company
Readers familiar with the work of Elizabeth Eisenstein, Robert Darnton, Roger Chartier, and Adrian Johns will find that Miles Ogborn contributes yet another fine thread of scholarship to the tapestry of research on reading, writing, printing, and publishing that has come to be known as the history of the book. This new work undertakes to examine the writing practices of the English East India Company, and in doing so, to show how the technologies of script and print interacted to establish the company's dominion in the early British Empire. It does so by illustrating how imperial power can be investigated through the relationships between knowledge and space that work through forms of communication in speech, script, and print.
In his previous work, Spaces of Modernity: London's Geographies 1680–1780, Ogborn, a professor of geography at Queen Mary, University of London, examined the role of local geographies, such as the Universal Register Office, to explore the relations of space to empire through the collection and distribution of information. This new work, Indian Ink: Script and Print in the Making of the English East India Company, demonstrates how the East India Company (EIC) established itself at home and abroad through its writing practices. Ogborn shows how writing operated both within the EIC and in the political arena to negotiate company interests in the debate on trade and monopoly—publicly through print and privately through letters or script. Rather than discuss the differences between script and print, this study highlights the interplay between these two modes of writing: the ways they complemented each other and coexisted in establishing authority.
In setting the stage for his discussion, Ogborn summarizes current research of interest to historians and librarians concerned with the study of knowledge [End Page 361] production and dissemination in the public sphere. Ogborn examines recent work on reading and readership as well as printing and manuscript traditions, placing this study in the context of discourse on the social history of knowledge. Next, Ogborn looks at how writings traveled around the world: royal letters are examined as objects that illustrate the relations between the EIC and the state in establishing trade agreements with Asian rulers. The subsequent chapters are concerned with the internal and external politics of print. Ogborn discusses administrative documentation and forms of accounting within the EIC and its agencies. He follows Streynsham Master, the agent at Fort St. George, in his attempts to formalize procedures and forms of accounting tools and communications with the EIC; then he shows how the reading practices of the EIC directors reveal the importance of these varying forms of writing.
Ogborn shows the company engaging with the press and public opinion over challenges to its monopoly and employing script and print in the practice of politics from the King's Court to coffeehouses. Ogborn details numerous print exchanges and discusses the consequences of going into print and the meaning of responding publicly rather than through privately circulated letters. Increasingly, the EIC had to engage with the press to defend its rights and privileges; the explosion of print in the late seventeenth century meant that public attacks had to be responded to in print. Indeed, "differences that could mean the end of the East India Company . . . were fought out in print, through print, with print, and over print, in ways that sought to make and shape the debate both inside and outside the houses of Parliament" (140).
The fifth chapter details the operations of the stock market among the Exchange Alley coffee shops and early efforts to regulate stock trading practices through the printing of daily stock prices in assorted broadsides and serials. Stock prices were representations of the company's business economics and an important factor in the public understanding of trade that helped allay fears of market manipulation. This chapter is a fascinating case study in the history of...