- Corporate Character: Representing Imperial Power in British India, 1786–1901 by Eddy Kent
Eddy Kent’s Corporate Character tackles an important question underlying studies of nineteenth-century British imperialism: how did the British Empire ensure the compliance of imperial agents who worked under little supervision? In pursuit of an answer, Kent tracks the evolution of the colonial agent from the “corrupt nabob” exemplified by Warren Hastings to the “virtuous colonial administrator” through the East India Company’s transition from a joint-stock corporation to a state government and the reflection of this transition through both the practical pedagogy of nineteenth-century education and Anglo-Indian literature.
The book advocates for a long-term view of the British in India, beginning late in the eighteenth century, rather than with Britain’s decision to take official charge from the East India Company after the 1857 Rebellion. This decision is grounded in Kent’s unsettling observation that the transfer of power from the East India Company to the government of India was so seamless that while titles changed, personnel, offices, and responsibilities remained the same. Chapter one begins by reading the historical trial of Hastings between 1788 and 1795 as the moment where the East India Company reinvented its corporate culture. Hastings becomes a scapegoat, whose prosecution for his personal behaviour becomes the means by which the East India Company’s corporate behaviour might be purified.
Next, chapter two examines the transformation of the educational systems that prepared the administrative class through liberal education and meritocratic civil service examinations. Kent’s reading departs from normative histories that attribute the change to evangelical Christianity and utilitarianism, emphasizing instead the competing routes to employment through either educational centres such as Fort William and Haileybury or competitive entrance exams. This colony-bound education sought to cultivate liberal aristocratic sentiment, and Kent highlights the little-recognized fact that early nineteenth-century schools had comparatively lax adult oversight, balanced by the public posting of achievements. “College liberty” was supposed to encourage self-control, leading students to pursue achievement in order to avoid public disgrace; the summation of an individual’s worth through the civil service exams worked toward a similar end. This system emphasized obedience and adherence to structures of authority—competition between students eliminated possible objections to the overarching system.
Having attended to major historical changes in colonial governance, Kent turns in the next three chapters to Anglo-Indian fiction, demonstrating how literary structures reinforced the melding of surveillance, competition, and corporate business practice with private life. He provides [End Page 369] readings of understudied early novels such as William Arnold’s Oakfield (1853) and George Trevelyan’s The Competition Wallah (1864), noting the ambivalence toward esprit de corps as a source of moral corruption or a source of motivation for company men. Moving on to Rudyard Kipling’s early short fiction and Sara Jeannette Duncan’s Set in Authority (1906), Kent plays with the idea of an Anglo-Indian “nation,” whose defining characteristic is their sense of belonging through work. Within this textually imagined nation, the panoptic environment of Anglo-Indian society echoes Haileyburian surveillance. The last chapter provides a fresh and compelling reading of Kipling’s Kim (1901), focusing on the indecision of the ending and on Kim’s awareness of the forces laying claim to his identity.
Corporate Character offers an intriguing narrative of the East India Company’s lasting influence on the British Empire and provides interesting new perspectives on nineteenth-century education and Anglo-Indian fiction, but it also leaves room for further exploration. Kent’s emphasis on agents’ “active consent” pulls against his concurrent stated interest in exploring how the British Empire “colonized the minds” of its agents. What are the stakes of achieving active consent versus unconsciously or helplessly yielding to the overwhelming pressure of corporate culture? Kent’s reading of Kim brilliantly demonstrates how this conflict is played out in the body of a fictional character, but Kim is allowed to end his story in a state of suspension—historical colonizers were not. The reading...