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  • "England in the East":Metonymies of Absence in Charles Dilke's Greater Britain
  • Ann-Barbara Graff (bio)

England in the East is not the England that we know. Flousy Britannia, with her anchor and ship, becomes a mysterious Oriental despotism, ruling a sixth of the human race, nominally for the natives' own good, and certainly for no one else's.

(Dilke, Greater Britain 550)1

[T]he British rulers of India are like men bound to keep true time in two longitudes at once. ... If they are too slow, there will be no improvement. If they are too fast, there will be no security. ... Nevertheless, the paradoxical position must be accepted in the most extraordinary experiment, the British Government of India, the virtually despotic government of a dependency by a free people.

(Maine 129, my emphasis)

In "Of Mimicry and Man," Homi Bhabha discusses the importance of the relationship between representation and authority in colonial discourse. In particular, he points to a trope that he names the "metonymy of presence" (89) to illustrate how rhetoric is used to reassert the regulatory power of "colonial man" while mimicry seeks to upset it (90). Bhabha uses colonial India to explain his term: from the publication of Macaulay's "Minute on Indian Education" onward, the colonial administrators expected Indians to replicate British language, manners, attitudes, and practices; however, the more perfect the emulation, the more sharply the British drew the distinction between "being English and being Anglicized" (89), withholding power from native Indians by substituting (racial) authenticity for bureaucratic competence. This created a Zeno's paradox2 whereby no Indians could assume the power accorded the colonial master because, no matter how perfect the natives' performance of Englishness, they could only become anglicized, never English. Thus, this discursive system prevented the authority of the British from being usurped by their imitators: Indians could not take the place of their English masters but could only become anglicized "mimic men" (Bhabha 49) and thus increasingly alien from Indian and English narratives of authenticity and authority. [End Page 175]

Bhabha's concept of the metonymy of presence has spurred post-colonial reflections on Victorian rhetorical practices. In this paper, I propose a complementary trope, which, in deference to Bhabha, I name the "metonymy of absence." I will illustrate this trope using Charles Dilke's discussion of the Anglo-Indian relationship in his travelogue Greater Britain: A Record of Travel in English-Speaking Countries during 1866 and 1867 (1869). Dilke's rhetorical and tropological strategies, especially his use of the Taj Mahal as a monument of deposed imperial power, his ethnographic discussions of the Ceylonese, and his reading of Indian landscapes as reflections of an English original, express his belief that all things Indian are at heart English, thereby deconstructing the argument of mimicry through a privileging of an occluded English ideal

The political circumstances of the1860s sparked a period of intense reflection and debate about the nature and value of the British Empire. As Duncan Bell writes, "During the 1860s ... many watchful observers perceived an imminent threat to empire" (4). These threats included the Indian Mutiny, the Crimean War, the Jamaican Revolt, and other political and military defeats which highlighted the limits of British global power, as well as Gladstone's fiscal prudence and Cobdenite "Manchesterism" which allowed the empire to be cast domestically as a burden rather than a source of greatness. In Greater Britain, Dilke undertook to confirm the value of the empire to a readership struggling with the limits, contradictions, and paradoxes of British hegemony. Dilke's conceptualizing and giving name to a "Greater Britain" quickly allowed the term to become the dominant sobriquet of imperial relations. As a phrase, untethered to a particular argument, it had an aspirational quality to which writers routinely returned. However, the content of Dilke's argument for continued British intervention in India deserves as much attention for its rhetorical subtlety as his pithy title deserves for its popular appeal. Influenced by contemporary ethnographic, evolutionary, and political theories, Dilke's achievement is noteworthy because it signaled a new representational discourse about empire and temporarily ended a period of confusion, which, for liberal intellectuals, was sparked by the conquest...


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pp. 175-189
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