Nabobs: Empire and Identity in Eighteenth-Century Britain
The figure of the nabob, well known to scholars of eighteenth-century British India, was long a source of satire, derision, and anxiety for Britons who witnessed the return of their compatriots from India with unseemly amounts of wealth. Much of the comedy in William Thackeray's novel Vanity Fair (published as a serial in 1847-48) comes from Joseph Sedley, a former district tax collector who returns to England after he makes a fortune in private trade in India. A hapless figure who is overweight and silly, Sedley's primary escapade involves avoiding battle against Napoleon's armies, suggesting that he lacks patriotism and masculine courage. The Sedleys lose their fortune in the novel, serving as an object lesson for the Jos Sedleys of the world who imagined they could leapfrog through English class hierarchy to the top. When India-gained wealth was used to buy [End Page 629] country estates, it threatened to overturn the respectability and political stability of a landed aristocracy whose wealth was uncontaminated by colonial profits and economic speculation. Images of nabobs' gaudy fashions, heavily tanned skin, and strange comportment circulated in newspapers, pamphlets, plays, and poems, suggestive of how one small group's putative deviance from a carefully managed set of social norms fueled the anxieties of a generation of political observers that included Edmund Burke, Fanny Burney, Samuel Johnson, Tom Paine, and Horace Walpole. Nabobs became a national obsession in part because they threatened the consolidation of a particular brand of domestic Britishness, and in part because they represented the worst excesses in the imperial activities undertaken by servants of the East India Company.
Tillman Nechtman's Nabobs is an exhaustively researched book that carefully details this multivalent historical moment. The book crystallizes a number of important intersections, those between British literature and history, cultural and political history, and what might be called "domestic" and imperial history. Self-consciously styled within the tradition of a "new imperial history," Nechtman's work emphasizes the ways in which India in particular and empire more broadly can never be fully disaggregated from the history of Britain. As he notes, the display of spectacular wealth gained from trade in the East Indies was suggestive of the possible ways in which "India" (as broadly construed and misconstrued) could corrupt the British body politic and the emergent conceptions of civil society, virtue, and political thought that were the hallmarks of Britain's sense of its own superiority. His close reading of texts and images is especially acute; for example, the engravings of James Gillray, which appeared in broadsheets and newspapers at the end of the eighteenth century, are very carefully analyzed in all their complexity (127-29, 144, 164, 183, 217-19).
Nechtman's originality lies in his ability to re-create a dense accounting of the public conversation about nabobs. For example, many of us have heard of Samuel Foote's play, The Nabobs, which was first performed in 1772 and several times throughout the next few decades. Although Foote's play is canonic in postcolonial studies, Nechtman reminds us that it was only one of several performed for English theatergoers in the final decades of the eighteenth century (136-38). Warren Hastings's trial, which was orchestrated by Edmund Burke between 1786 and 1795, is similarly well documented by scholars; Nechtman draws comparisons to the lesser-known and less spectacular parliamentary trial of Lord Clive (81-85) to show how anxieties about nabobs could not be suppressed in political discourse. Although Clive was acquitted, just as Hastings was nearly twenty years later, Nechtman argues that political and economic malfeasance were presumed of all former Company servants, thus calling for public opprobrium. Lord Clive committed suicide shortly after his acquittal in 1774, fueling even more speculation about his guilt; Nechtman closely reads press reports of nabob suicides in the 1780s to demonstrate how the presumed guilt underpinning Clive's suicide was used to narrate the deaths of other young men who had returned from India (130-32).
Chapters four and five bring a new perspective by examining material culture and the threat that the display of colonial luxuries posed to ordinary Britons who earned ordinary amounts of money. The movement of diamonds from India as a way of transferring wealth to Britain is suggestive of how two diaspora communities on the social margins—nabobs and Jewish diamond traders—used imperial networks to undermine the Company's efforts to minimize personal profit (158-60). The figure of the "nabobina," or the wife of the nabob, condensed multiple [End Page 630] anxieties about empire, conflating women's sexuality, their desire for luxury goods, and their display of jewels and Indian fashions, and mapping these anxieties onto the bodies of European women who had spent time in India. Nechtman draws from the life narratives of Marian Hastings, Sophia Plowden, and Sarah Bonner, whose changing fortunes in the course of their husbands' careers in India became matters of public concern in Britain.
Following the changing nature of the meaning of "nabob" at various historical moments is an important thread in Nechtman's narrative. Starting with Walpole's derisive invocation in 1784 of the East India Company as the "spawn of nabobs" (11), he ends with the observation that the term "nabob" has changed over time (221-22). Disgraced Vice President Spiro T. Agnew was notorious for using the term "nattering nabobs of negativism" in characterizing opponents of the American intervention in Southeast Asia as an "effete corps of impudent snobs." These alliterative and gendered phrases were penned by William Safire, Richard Nixon's speechwriter and a columnist for the New York Times. Ironically, they have been taken up recently by another more liberal Times columnist, Paul Krugman, who changed Safire's phrase to "niggling nabobs of negativism" to parody those who oppose all efforts at economic reform without offering an alternative. As Nechtman notes, "nabob" is a "catchy insult" (221), used on both sides of the political divide to argue both in favor of and against an imperial state's intervention. Its durability over several centuries ensures that it is a term with which we will continue to grapple.