Early Modern Times – Monteskewed ideas of India

Early Modern Times - Monteskewed ideas of India

Dear readers,

Last week, I presented at the Northeast American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies conference, which was to be held in New York City but transitioned online. My conference paper was on ‘India, Empire, and the Culture of Commerce: Montesquieu and his Legacy’, the topic of this issue of Early Modern Times. Let us address some of the Monteskewed ideas of India in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The paper began with aspects of the French thinker’s De l’esprit des lois (The Spirit of the Laws, first published in 1748). The Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755) sharply distinguished monarchical and despotic regimes. He characterised monarchy in constitutional terms, in which there are checks on the monarch’s powers, in contradistinction to despotic states in which there is no restraint on the will and caprice of the ruling despot. Moderate regimes including monarchies engage in commerce, which is largely absent in despotism. As Roger Boesche argues, however, in his 1990 article ‘Fearing Monarchs and Merchants: Montesquieu’s Two Theories of Despotism‘, Montesquieu presented contradictory images of despotism especially relative to wealth and commerce: in some places in The Spirit of the Laws, despotic societies are said to be in a state of ruin and impoverishment, whereas in other places, he focuses on the luxury and delights enjoyed by ‘Oriental’ despots and even their servants. Montesquieu regarded despotism as both brutal and inhumane on the one hand, and the site of sensuality and voluptuousness on the other. He thus engaged in a form of contradictorientalism.

Montesquieu also expressed conflicted ideas on imperialism in Asia. Despotic regimes are unduly effected by natural causes including climate: they experience extreme temperatures, unlike the temperate zones in Europe. Asia, in his view, possesses only torrid and frigid zones and nothing in between. Such extremes inhibit commerce in states such as India, whose culture and mores are as static as those of other Asian countries. Asia, then, is despotic and unfree, in contrast to Europe. But Montesquieu also thought that imperial conquest leads to despotism (as happened in the Roman Empire), while existing despotic regimes–though thoroughly corrupt–are suited for Asia. His bifurcation between the free West and the unfree East was taken up by later apologists for European imperialism, even though he regarded imperialism as deleterious and futile. Imperial conquest is at best an empyrrhic victory, in which the victor goes from the frying pan to the des-pot.

Edmund Burke (1729-97), the Anglo-Irish statesman and political thinker, is best known for his opposition to the French Revolution, and was deeply influenced by Montesquieu’s moderate reformism. He also grappled with Britain’s commercial empire in India. In parliament, he denounced the corruption of East India Company rule under Warren Hastings as a form of despotism. The Company failed to generate the benefits of commerce, and thus its corrupt and despotic rule led to impoverishment and penury in India. Burke was an admirer of the ancient Hindu kingdoms, though he was critical of Moghul rule over early modern India. He was thus not an anti-imperialist, but rather called for more enlightened British rule in India (as in his home country of Ireland). Given his admiration for ancient traditions, Burke was a kind of Indi-antiquarian.

The English politician and man of letters Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-59) was a far less conflicted promoter of empire in India. He was a prominent proponent of Anglicisation in India. Following Montesquieu, he contrasted European moderation with Asian despotism. But he saw the latter as capable of ‘improvement’ through the English education of an Indian elite. The British Empire is on a ‘civilising mission’ in India, which will lead to the progress of the latter and benefit commerce between Britain and its colony. Macaulay’s approach was adopted by the British especially during the era of direct rule following the fall of the East India Company in the wake of the 1857-58 Indian Rebellion. He could be said to have Macau-laid the foundations of modern British India.

The project of Anglicisation, however, had unexpected results. It generated a common language for Indian nationalists dissatisfied with British rule, and divided Hindu and Muslim communities as Muslim elites and intellectuals lost ground to English-educated Hindus. By the late 19th century, imports of cheap British wool put many Indians out of work, and there was a succession of devastating epidemics and famines. For Indian nationalists, this empire of commerce was evidently not to India’s benefit: the British empire in India was both commercial and chimerical. Indian nationalists were impassioned by Raj against the Establishment. British dominion was nothing but a Monte-Squid Game in which the colonies were the losers.

Till next time,

Simon Kow

Early Modern funeral em-pyre Studies Program

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