- Corporate Character: Representing Imperial Power in British India, 1786–1901 by Eddy Kent
In Corporate Character: Representing Imperial Power in British India, 1786–1901, Eddy Kent explores how the British Empire negotiated the supervision and disciplining of its agents from afar. Kent argues that imperial institutions cultivated a “corporate culture” through which they developed a class of colonial administrators who willingly performed the everyday work of empire, even at a great distance from the metropole and despite the work being “so obviously against any rational calculation of their self-interest” (4). Corporate Character differs from other well-known studies of British colonial subjects or Anglo-Indian culture—for instance, those by Anne McClintock, John Kucich, and John McBratney—in that Kent focuses on “the problematic of institutions and agency, rather than the more conventional lenses of race or nation” (7). By “agency,” Kent means that not of colonized Indian subjects but of British colonial administrators (10). The book’s central thesis is that the “corporate culture” of these administrators “exemplif[ies]” a “case of manufactured consent,” one achieved
through the standard of aristocratic virtue established to purify mercantile imperialism, through the disciplinary apparatuses of the training colleges and the competition examination founded to train men who found …virtue through exile and sacrifice, and through the literary culture which continued to disseminate this orthodoxy long after the decline of Company power in India.…(23) [End Page 199]
Kent illustrates how colonization was articulated as work and, in turn, how colonizers came to pursue prolonged but willing bureaucratic drudgery, often in isolation from other workers. Central in this enculturation were “disciplinary apparatuses…built by the Company to socialize recruits into its corporate culture,” such as “the training college and competition exam” (65).
Before British colonial subjects—or as Kent calls them, imperial agents—could be shaped by nineteenth-century institutions to toil for empire, there was first a shift in the image of these subjects from the plunderous nabobs, satirized in eighteenth-century literature, to the self-sacrificing yet willing drudge worker of empire. Kent locates this shift in the trial of Warren Hastings (1788–95), after which “British imperial debates no longer asked should but rather (how) could the empire be virtuous” (29). Analyzing Edmund Burke’s Indian speeches, Kent shows that Burke forwarded a “vision for the future governance of India” in which “a company man’s character should already be formed, founded in solid unalterable British principles, before he undertakes an Indian appointment” (56). Kent’s fascinating analysis of the theatrical dimension of Burke’s speeches and Hastings’s trial includes a drawing of the layout of the High Court of Parliament where the trial took place, taken from Hastings’s Memoirs Relative to the State of India (1789).
After the notion of the virtuous empire was established, Kent shows, specific disciplinary apparatuses and Anglo-Indian literature defined and sustained imperial corporate culture. Thomas Babington Macaulay’s competition exam, in its impossible difficulty, generated masochism within test-takers such that “those most conscious of their inability to succeed in full would be most likely not to fail in total” (88). Such devices, in turn, produced the quintessential burdened white man of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem. Kent distinguishes Anglo-Indian literature “from its metropolitan analogue” (91); novels such as William Delafield Arnold’s Oakfield; Or Fellowship in the East (1853) and George Otto Trevelyan’s The Competition Wallah (1864) illustrate the concern “with articulating a distinct Anglo-Indian and…corporate culture” focused specifically on work (111). Kent argues that the focus on work remained after the transfer of power from company to Crown, reflecting the “enduring influence of the Company’s ethos” and, subsequently, “the growing hegemony of and the critical resistance to the corporate ideology” (25). Kent helpfully examines corporate culture as a legacy of company rule.
Corporate Character’s fresh insight into the culture of colonization-as-work in British India leaves room for further discussion. Kent’s exclusive focus on British colonizers and institutions is hard...