William Hodges’s Travels in India During the Years 1780, 1781, 1782 and 1783 (1793) is a text literally structured by war. Hodges’s travels and his narrative are repeatedly interrupted by armed conflict between the forces of the East India Company and resistant native powers across the subcontinent. The particular conflicts in question did not go well for the British and the humiliating loss at Pollilur not only raised questions regarding Warren Hastings’s bellicosity, but also haunted representations of British rule in India until the final defeat of Tipu Sultan in 1799. In spite of the fact that the Travels appears to be a pro-Hastings document, published in London at the turning point in the impeachment proceedings against the former Governor-General of Bengal, the narrative disjunctions instantiated by these conflicts destabilize Hodges’s explicit argument that British governance in the region is not only benevolent, but also far superior to prior examples of Moslem rule. The aim of this paper is to demonstrate how the text’s figural economy–both textual and visual–attempts to ameliorate the narrative disjunctions which everywhere threaten to disclose the Company’s precarious claim to sovereignty. Through a close analysis of Hodges’s figuration of good and bad governance in the region, the argument will isolate precisely how his–and by extension, the Company’s--historical predicament erupts into the text and call in to question the very models of governmentality figured forth in his remarkable rendering of the banyan tree.
Michel Foucault, in his essay “Governmentality”, defined “Government as the right disposition of things”. From the period immediately prior to the passing of the Regulating Act to the East India Company Charter Act, the hybridity of the East India Company generated significant controversy regarding the appropriate form and quality of colonial rule. Hodges’s text engages with this problematic by presenting figures of the right disposition of men and things. The most important of these, the banyan tree, is the subject of an extensive textual description and also one of the volumes most accomplished engravings. In the text, the tree offers shade and sustenance to all who come under its canopy and it is metaphorically linked to Hastings’s management of Indian affairs. Its vitality and above all its naturalness accrue to the governmentality of the Company and thus it ostensibly stands as a figure of prosperity, hope and stability in a time of war and economic uncertainty. It also stands in marked contrast to Hodges similarly iconic description of the ruins of Agra and especially of Acbar’s tomb later in the text. As ruins architectural traces of a similarly ruined Mughal empire, these descriptions ostensibly testify to the fundamental inability despotic powers to rule effectively. Akbar’s tomb is especially important in this regard because it is Akbar’s name itself, as rendered on the mausoleum that operates as the ultimate contrast to the banyan tree. In other words, a dead name, an almost Wordsworthian epitaph, figures forth the disappearance and obsolescence of entire period in Indian history and in its place, Hodges offers a living thing. What interests me about this contrast is that in both cases the historical obfuscations depend upon key slippages in the distinction between word and image, between living and dead, between name and metaphor.
My essay’s concluding gesture demonstrates how the visual renderings of the banyan tree and of architectural ruins attempt to contain or regulate what amounts to a crisis in figuration. Of particular importance is the way Hodges’s image engages with prior images, most notably in Picart, which link the tree to suspect forms of sexuality. At the heart of Hodges engraving is a resonant act of visual surrogation which figures forth a remarkable fantasy of phallic Company rule well before the East India Company fully consolidated its power in the region. In other words, one can discern within the relationship between textual figuration and the visual strategies of the engravings the kind of “wishful thinking” or self-delusion that C. A. Bayly has identified as a crucial element of British governance prior to and during the imposition of the Permanent Settlement.