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  • Nabobs: Empire and Identity in Eighteenth-Century Britain
  • Michael H. Fisher
Nabobs: Empire and Identity in Eighteenth-Century Britain. By Tillman W. Nechtman. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 280 pp. $99.00 (cloth).

The opposing moral models of Britain as a progressing, Enlightenment-inspired nation or else of Britain as the conqueror and ruler of an expanding global empire in Asia enflamed debates across Britain during the late eighteenth century. Nabobs (India-returned Britons) and the exotic material objects they brought back with them from India to Britain emerged in elite and popular discourses as the embodiments of Britain's Asian empire. Nabobs thus stood central to these foundational constitutional conflicts.

Tillman Nechtman's well-researched and thoughtful Nabobs: Empire [End Page 877] and Identity in Eighteenth-Century Britain analyzes these cultural disputes, centering as they did on the concept and role of the nabob as either a prime threat to domestic British national virtues or a prime justification for the British Empire in Asia. He skillfully assembles and analyzes textual, visual, and material representations of the nabob, images constructed by the nabobs themselves or by their British political opponents and social rivals. Nechtman integrates his fifteen illustrations into his analysis particularly effectively. Throughout his book, Nechtman explores what global imperialism meant for Britons during this crucial period.

Nechtman persuasively and consistently demonstrates his argument about the centrality of nabobs in Britain's raging national debates during this transitional time between England's first empire over the seas to Britain's second empire on land in alien Asia. He effectively presents and parses the respective positions of nabobs and their critics, as well as of subsequent scholars writing on these issues. British etchings, newspapers, novels, plays, essays, and other elite and popular media largely concurred in their assertions of the threats to British morality posed by nabobs. But nabobs largely projected their own positive roles through their sponsorship of portraits and other high art, architecture, and imported exotic animals, as well as through purchases of landed estates in the British countryside and generous gifts to prominent members of the British establishment.

The two sides in this cultural controversy shared many presuppositions and goals. Both nabobs and also their British attackers drew upon British domestic rhetoric to advance and illustrate their assertions. Both nabobs and their opponents were determined to prove that Britain was exceptional among Europeans. They also agreed that Britain had achieved a qualitatively higher level of civilization than India.

The two sides, however, attempted to make opposing "perspectival transformations" (p. 63). Nabobs regarded themselves as carrying out Britain's imperial project and elevating in the process the society and politics of India, projected as simultaneously primitive and decadent. These British men (and a much fewer number of British women) had made the long and perilous voyage to India, had survived the high death rates among Europeans there, and further believed that they had legitimately acquired some or a great deal of wealth there. They represented themselves as fundamentally unchanged in morality by India, still fully incorruptible Britons. By their very being and achievements, they thus asserted that Britons were exceptional in being able to rule over Asian lands, peoples, and climates that had degraded previous rulers of lesser races. Further, nabobs felt they were enriching Britain [End Page 878] when they returned home, both in material and moral terms as well as by advancing Anglocentric global commerce. Opposing them, elite and popular domestic Britons regarded nabobs as having been personally corrupted by Asia's despotism and unearned opulence and, with their importation of Asia's political, social, cultural, and financial vices, as endangering Britain's exceptional national purity and distinction from continental European imperial regimes.

In each of his five chapters, Nechtman takes up a particular facet of these cultural conflicts. He strategically devotes a substantial section of his book to one of the most prominent public debates over nabobs: the extended trial (1787-1795) of former governor-general Warren Hastings (1732-1818), which included his impeachment by the House of Commons but eventual acquittal by the House of Lords. The influential parliamentarian Edmund Burke (1729/30-1797), archetypically represented the attacks on nabobs, while...