- Irish Imperial Networks: Migration, social communication and exchange in Nineteenth-Century India by Barry Crosbie
Barry Crosbie’s scholarly monograph makes a weighty contribution to the flourishing studies of Irish-Indian connections across the British Empire. Crosbie argues convincingly and with authority for “Ireland’s role as a crucial sub-imperial centre that supplied the Empire with a vital repository of manpower, knowledge and skill that fuelled Britain’s drive into South Asia from the 1750s onward” (17). He has drawn on a range of private papers—mostly in Britain, plus some in Ireland—and official documents to construct a wide-ranging study of the Irish individuals and groups whose networks had an impact on India from the mid-eighteenth to the early twentieth century. Crosbie argues that “a single unifying sense of Irishness was never really a defining feature of the Irish in the Empire” (4), notwithstanding that some of the Irish networks he identifies were constructed “explicitly along ethnic lines” (18). Promising a “cross-section of nineteenth-century Irish society in India” (18), the book is structured around types of actors and their networks, including East India Company officials, missionary men, scientists, surveyors and civil servants, and it contains many brief biographies of important figures in these respective fields.
The introduction meticulously maps out the book’s detailed historiographical genealogy, which is sufficiently complex to merit four subheadings. These cover historiographical developments in writing about the nation in and of the Empire, the global turn in Imperial history, imperial networks, and specifically the Irish and Irish-Indian articulations of these debates. Crosbie presents himself as particularly influenced by the work of Alan Lester, Tony Ballantyne, C.A. Bayly, and G.B. Magee and A.S. Thompson. The thoroughness of the introductory chapters slightly tried this reader’s patience: Crosbie’s own new, primary research does not begin to appear until page 43. Here the book is self-aware and carefully comprehensive to a fault: a combination of rigour and caution which may betray its origins as a doctoral dissertation, one that took a few years to become a monograph, during which time quite a few serious studies of Irish-Indian relations were published. A few of these are cited, but the introduction could have been updated to engage more with these new studies (which may not have invoked networks in name, but presented them in effect). But while some of the novelty and urgency claimed in the introduction has worn off, there is a great deal of important new material here.
Each chapter tackles a different network and each can be read as a freestanding piece of work. Surprisingly, much of the action, so to speak, takes place in Ireland, rather than India, both as the context to the network (and professional) formation and as the laboratory of imperial experimentation and policy. Crosbie does a particularly good job at illuminating the many ways in which remittances from Irishmen earning in India both strengthened network identity—for example, in the establishment of trust funds for soldiers’ orphans—and also provided capital for improvements back home in Ireland. Crosbie also unveils original material on the “very distinctive Irish school of medicine that was very much apparent in India during the second half of the nineteenth century” (202), thanks to the serious medical training provided by Irish and Scottish universities, resulting in a large number of Irish recruits to the Indian Medical Service. Religion, as well as science, is also a theme running through the book, and Irish Catholic priests’ negotiation of caste and class in colonial India makes for especially interesting reading.
If there are any skeptics remaining, Crosbie’s research should leave them in no doubt that the Irish presence in the second British Empire was sizeable and significant, and that the historical bonds between Ireland and India are real, substantial and pervasive. There is a great deal of fresh material for historians of institutions, of the politics of the East India Company or of later Raj administrative rule, and of scientific communities. Gender...