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Metropolis, India and progress in the colonial imagination

This is a detailed study of the various ways in which London and India were imaginatively constructed by British observers during the nineteenth century. This process took place within a unified field of knowledge that brought together travel and evangelical accounts to exert a formative influence on the creation of London and India for the domestic reading public. Their distinct narratives, rhetoric and chronologies forged homologies between representations of the metropolitan poor and colonial subjects—those constituencies that were seen as the most threatening to imperial progress. Thus the poor and particular sections of the Indian population were inscribed within discourses of western civilization as regressive and inferior peoples. Over time, these discourses increasingly promoted notions of overt and rigid racial hierarchies, the legacy of which remains to this day. This comparative analysis looks afresh at the writings of observers such as Henry Mayhew, Patrick Colquhoun, Charles Grant, Pierce Egan, James Forbes and Emma Roberts, thereby seeking to rethink the location of the poor and India within the nineteenth-century imagination. Drawing upon cultural and intellectual history, it also attempts to extend our understanding of the relationship between ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’.

After the decisive battle of Plassey, various forms of knowledge production grew exponentially. In 1784 the Asiatic Society of Bengal was formed. It was at this moment that equations of state were brought into a unitary epistemological field. This chapter argues that the eighteenth-century European state established its authority by codifying and controlling the representation of the relationship between the past and the present. The accumulation of vast amounts of information on finance, trade, health, crime and industry served this end. In Britain this cultural project was integral to the country's emergence as a colonial power, and since India was potentially the most important colony, the consolidation of the state brought the two countries into a relationship of mutual reciprocity. The projects of state building in both countries—documentation, classification and bounding, and the institutions therewith—often reflected theories, experiences and practices worked out originally in India and then applied to Great Britain as well as vice versa.

in The other empire

This chapter focuses on metropolitan poor and colonial peoples, which are often considered as one of the most threatening antitheses to progress. The writings of travellers and evangelicals were by far the most influential and provided the clearest evidence of a concern—realized in practical action—that embraced the plight of slaves and the poor. In terms of their chronologies, rhetoric, narratives and agencies, there were distinct homologies between the discursive appropriations of the antithesis of progress during the long nineteenth century. Agents operating across narrowly defined boundaries using an intellectual and linguistic repertoire forged from the transformation in human consciousness conceptualized imperial progress on the fronts of slavery, poverty and colonialism. Furthermore, the chapter explores the rise of the idea of progress and how it structured British thought on the place of non-European peoples in the new world order.

in The other empire

Imperial progress on the fronts of slavery, poverty and colonialism was conceptualized by agents operating across their narrowly defined boundaries using an intellectual and linguistic repertoire forged from the transformation in human consciousness that occurred late in the eighteenth century. Structural barriers were perceived, but these tended to assume less significance than the threats posed by the persistence of paupers and colonial subjects. How these threats were constructed discursively in the long nineteenth century as a means of understanding and hence controlling them is addressed. This chapter focuses on the problem of metropolitan poverty. Reasonably secure understanding of its structural underpinnings in the modern era can append the complex epistemology of the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

in The other empire
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This chapter explores the general crisis in the production of knowledge about India, which rose about from the forged homologies with London, by British observers during the nineteenth century. Attempts to locate India historically similarly drew upon implicit understandings and served to consolidate Company administration. As the century closed, evangelicalism and a radical utilitarianism increasingly displaced the outlook of India. Sympathetic conservatism of orientalism yielded a more aggressive project intent on dragging India into the civilized and modern world. William Jones sought to codify the Indian legal system, and in so doing ‘discovered’ India's ancient past; Thomas Munro laid the foundations for the administration of land settlements; and James Rennell mapped India. Although each relied on knowledges and methodologies that had been developed in the West, there was no obvious reference to metropolitan concerns. Neither topographical maps of London nor Ordnance surveys contributed to the project of mapping India.

in The other empire
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This chapter explores the complete cyclopaedia that represents the plurality of metropolitan life, conceptualized by Pierce Egan. In the early years of the nineteenth century artists and writers broke with classical modes of representation of plurality and presented a fundamental shift in the status of the observing subject. Obvious manifestations were the changes in imagery promoted by new systems of representation, but more fundamental was the massive reorganization of knowledge that impacted on human capacities to produce, desire and perceive. A new observer operating in a range of social and artistic practices, and scientific and philosophical domains of knowledge attempted to appropriate the dislocating experiences of urban environments. This ambulatory observer shaped by a convergence of new urban spaces, technologies and new economic and symbolic functions of images and products abandoned the dominant, fixed and seemingly stable perceptions of the previous century, and sought a truth abstracted from any founding site or referent.

in The other empire
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The accumulation of empirical material illustrates a determined attempt to know the Indian landscape and village life in order better to exercise economic and political authority. This chapter highlights the more systematic, centralized, totalizing and abstract bodies of knowledge based on fundamental discourses of race, caste and criminality. Until the late eighteenth century orientalist interests in ancient language and culture had prevailed. With the expansion of British control and the attendant demands for an efficient and informed administrative system, however, new types of knowledge were necessary. Equally, and to an extent autonomously of imperial exigencies, the survey represented a new mode of observation akin to that taking place in the metropolitan context. There were continuities with previous knowledge producing processes, but in surveys the accumulation and commodification of observable materials as a scientific enterprise to know India was quite novel.

in The other empire
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This chapter puts forward the idea of racial theory. The pioneering Henry Mayhew borrowed freely from contemporary racial theory, and putative logic was undermined by the plurality of empirical material on the experience of the poor recorded in the corpus of his work. The trope of racialization locates shifts in the construction of the poor within the imperial formation, and provides a more satisfactory explanation of their chronology and nature than those focusing exclusively on domestic politics and social policy. The chapter explores the workings of this symbolic process. To understand the active construction of racial identities in this period, there is a need to go beyond the convention of identifying characteristics of racial stereotyping, to an investigation of the subtle and powerful mechanisms through which they were created. The chapter also considers how modernist impulses transformed the discursive realm of the poor. Toward the end of the century anonymous crowds from an unknown abyss surfaced upon the urban landscape; race, however, remained the principal referent.

in The other empire
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This chapter provides a conclusion on the series of measures applied by British observers to accumulate knowledge about India. The internal coherence and integrity of evangelical narratives and the common objective of mission work to provide spiritual salvation to heathen populations created strong homologies. The emphasis on spiritual rather than political or material salvation, particularly, when confronted by constituencies that seemed impervious to their influence, did not override social or cultural differences, but did engender a degree of stability and continuity at times of profound political change. Travel writings were less coherent. They drew contradictorily and differentially upon longer traditions to produce epistemologically insecure visions of both metropolis and colony. Overarching both genres—and arguably the field of knowledge production as a whole—were narratives of progress. It was these that at times of political unease and perceived crisis in the information order engendered racialized and totalizing visions, which eventually rendered obsolete the projects of travellers and evangelicals to create knowledge of India.

in The other empire

This chapter focuses on the progress of missions with the history, the literature, the customs, and the mythology of Indian people, and which combined a general view of this interesting field, with the advancement of the truth. The notion of caste emerged during the formative stages of the British imagination of India. Caste attracted the hostility of evangelicals because it was seen as a powerful barrier to conversion, enlightenment and progress, and the mainstay of arguments against intervention in Indian customs. And yet caste was understood with neither rigour nor consistency. The term caste was used interchangeably with race, sect, tribe and even nation to denote a population seen to possess common traits. Indeed, it was this versatility that promoted the cavalier use of caste to provide pseudo-scientific status to theories on the nature of Indian society.

in The other empire