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Early Modern Times – an impe-real pickle

Early Modern Times - an impe-real pickle

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Dear readers,

A new exhibition intersects with my recent Foundation Year Program lecture on ‘India & empire’. The Wallace Collection in London is showcasing Indian paintings commissioned by the East India Company, as described in this article. The paintings include studies of plants and animals (as with Shaikh Zin ud-Din’s lovely rendering Giant Malabar Squirrel, Calcutta (1778), above), portraits, and landscapes. The works by these forgotten masters reflect the East India Company’s obsession with chronicling and recording everything in the British Raj. William Dalrymple, author of a recent book on the rise of the East India Company, remarks that these artists subtly and not-so-subtly depicted colonial rule and oppression, as well as illustrating scenes of everyday life. How did the British East India Company come to rule India in the early modern period?

The British were hardly the first foreigners to conquer parts of India, even in the early modern period. They were preceded by the Muslim Mughal dynasty. ‘Mughal’ is the Persian form of ‘Mongol’, and the origin of our loan-word ‘mogul’. As invaders crossing vast lands from central Asia to the Indian subcontinent, they were certainly movie moguls. The first great Mughal emperor was Babur, whose name means ‘tiger’. He was uninterested in Hindu culture, but drawn toward Indian wealth: he even named his son Hindal, meaning ‘seize India’. But Hindal was the second son, so he was be-Hindal his elder brother and royal heir Hamayun. Humayun was an undistinguished ruler but was obsessed with astronomy, astrology, and the spirit world: he blinded Hindal for murdering Humayun’s spiritual guru (which he considered a gu-rude gesture, to say the least). Humayun stumbled down the stone steps of his Delhi observatory to his death: he was fatally star- and stair-struck. His successor Akbar ruled throughout the second half of the 16th century. He was bloodthirsty but noted for his religious pluralism and tolerance, arising from his view of the common, fundamental truth underlying the world’s religions. Spiritually, Akbar was Mugh-all embracing.

In 1600, Queen Elizabeth I granted a charter for the English East India Company: it sought to trade throughout Asia, but China and Japan blocked trade with most European countries and the Portuguese and Dutch dominated commerce in Southeast Asia. Outgunned by the Dutch in particular, the English negotiated with the Mughal emperors for trade in cloth and spices in return for silver. The Mughals didn’t realise, however, that when trading with the English, one is in for a penny, in for a pound. The English reaped early profits and built factories (trading stations) along the coasts, though in competition especially with the French as well as Indian pirates. By the early 18th century, the Mughals were beset with internal weakness, of which the British took advantage. Calico, i.e., Indian cotton fabrics, were all the rage in Britain, and sent East Indian Company stocks soaring. This led to calico-pious profits, a calico-pacetic situation for the British amidst Mughal calico-rruption: thus was set the stage for the calico-nquest of India.

In the 18th century, both the British East India Company and the French Compagnie des Indes calico-operated with local rulers rather than the weakened Mughals. The Company was headed in the mid-18th century by the gangster-adventurer Robert Clive, who had spent his youth carrying out an extortion racket in Shropshire. Clive was Shropshire-cocksure, rising through the ranks of the East India Company: under his brutally effective leadership, it defeated its French rivals and played Indian rulers against each other to the Company’s benefit. His use of violence and his ruthlessness meant that he was a real Clive wire.

The ever-reckless Clive died, appropriately, from an opium overdose in 1774, succeeded by Warren Hastings. Unlike the thuggish Clive, Hastings immersed himself in the study of Indian languages and patronised the Asiatic Society, devoted to the advance of Orientalist scholarship (the study of Sanskrit and Persian languages and literature). He thought that a better means of governing India included the knowledge of local languages and culture, rather than warmongering: he tried to earn the nickname ‘Warren peace’. He was, however, impeached for corruption by the British parliament, and the object of pointed attacks by his enemy Edmund Burke. Hastings’ activities as head of the East India Company was the straw that ‘Burke’ the camel’s back.

Despite the success of East India Company rule, the impeachment of Hastings and subsequent debates over the British Raj indicated how deeply conflicted the British were over what they were doing in India. Was the pursuit of pure profit leading to despotism at home, as Burke thought? Should they champion Indian traditions under British rule, as espoused by Hastings and the Orientalists? Or were they there to ‘civilise’ India, the view especially of 19th-century British liberals? This crisis of empire arose from Britain’s rise from ‘Raj to riches’, a source of intense Indi-antagonism and Indi-angst.

’til next time,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Poetic Emp-irony Studies Program


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