- Corporate Character: Representing Imperial Power in British India, 1786–1901 by Eddy Kent
Eddy Kent’s Corporate Character: Representing Imperial Power in British India, 1786–1901 delves deep into subaltern politics. In the preface he posits the important idea that empires rely on the “active consent and honest service” of their agents and raises questions about the identity of the British Empire and its rules of engagement (xi). Through the prism of colonial literature, Kent examines the interrelationships between imperialism, capitalism, and governance. Kent works hard and rightly expects the readers to work hard as well, for this is a busy and demanding book.
Human corporeality demanded that medieval emperors ruled through networks of agents. There are no such excuses today. Kent suggests that “smart-bombs, unmanned aerial vehicles, drones and an array of surveillance satellites” enable modern emperors to subjugate colonized subjects. Yet, surprisingly, they still rely on “mediating layers” of human agency (xii). This is a cue for Kent to pitchfork us into the Abu Ghraib scandal of 2004. It presents a breathtakingly apt illustration. In the Senate hearings that followed, the U.S. Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, argued that he could not be expected to know what was happening on every “midnight shift” in prisons halfway across the world (Larry King, “Interview with Donald Rumsfeld, Dr. Phil,” CNN Larry King Live 3 [CNN. com, February 2005]). Generations of colonial potentates had protested similarly.
The midnight shift has come to symbolize imperial control. In 1852 John Stuart Mill appeared before a Parliamentary Select Committee to answer questions about the quis custodiet ipsos custodes conundrum—who will guard the guards? He insisted that imperial agents should regulate themselves. His solution came to inform British imperial policy for the next century, prompting officials in London to colonize the minds of overseas agents before they went to their overseas postings. Agents were poorly paid and had ample opportunity to be corrupt; gratifyingly, in 1893, W.E.H. Lecky noted that most agents had established “honest, faithful administrations in remote countries far from the supervision and practical control of central government” (qtd. 4). They sacrificed private pursuit of wealth for the greater glory of the Empire.
Kent trawled through scores of meaty late-Victorian documents, including Mill’s Considerations on Representative Government (1861), Thomas MacAulay’s Speech on the Government of India (1833), Edmund Burke’s speeches during the impeachment of Warren Hastings, and Rudyard Kipling’s reflections on moral authority. Initially, however, he settled on Sir John Seeley’s Cambridge lecture of 1883. Here, Seeley denounced colonialists who barbarously purloined the property of subject communities while at the same time absolving the English of any such guilt. They had, he said, acquired their Empire in “a fit of absence of mind,” drawn “no tribute” from India and never sacrificed India’s interests to their own (qtd. 2). Weasel words, perhaps, but Kent takes them at face value. After all, Seeley was honorable—he was the cheerleader for English values of trusteeship, liberal government, orderly empire, and duty and service, and he promised that Britain would relinquish its colonies when they were ready to govern themselves.
Kent is at his most effective when presenting reasoned arguments. Two deserve particular mention. First is the proposal that the British Empire was less scarred by internal scandals than other empires in the nineteenth century, which Kent suggests had come [End Page 168] about because Britain placed greater emphasis on so-called character and morality than any other imperial power, and because its imperial agents played such a key role. He points to the 1806 inauguration of the East India College at Haileybury, which came into its own in 1858 when power passed from the East India Company to the Crown. “Company India” was a “shopocracy” that was unconcerned with the lives of ordinary people, whereas “Crown India” was nurturing, ethical, just, and humane (62). Sparks flew when power passed from one to the other.
The second example concerns political allegory. Kipling’s Kim (1901) has...