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Romantic Imperialism

by Saree Makdisi

Chapter 5: Domesticating exoticism: transformations of Britain's Orient, 1785-1835


The vicinity of China to our Indian territories . . . must necessarily draw our attention to that most ancient and wonderful Empire, even if we had no commercial intercourse with its more distant and maritime provinces; and the benefits, that might be obtained from a more intimate connexion with a nation long famed for their useful arts, and for the valuable productions of their country, are too apparent to require any proof or illustration.

Sir William Jones, The Second Classical Book of the Chinese

Sir William Jones, and others, recognized the demand for a code of Indian law; but unhappily thought of no better expedient than that of employing some of the natives themselves; as if one of the most difficult tasks to which the human mind can be applied, a work to which the highest measure of European intelligence is not more than equal, could be expected to be tolerably performed by the unenlightened and perverted intellects of a few Indian pundits.

James Mill, The History of British India

The sea is between us. The mass of that element, which, by appearing to disconnect, unites mankind, is to them a forbidden road. It is a great gulf fixed between you and them, - not so much that elementary gulf, but that gulf which manners, opinions and laws have radicated in the very nature of the people. None of their high castes, without great danger to his situation, religion, rank, and estimation, can ever pass the sea; and this forbids, forever, all direct communication between that country and this. That material and affecting circumstance, my Lords, makes it ten times more necessary, since they cannot come to us, to keep a strict eye upon all persons who go to them. It imposes upon us a stricter duty to guard with a firm and powerful vigilance those whose principles of conscience weaken their principles of self-defence. If we undertake to govern the inhabitants of such a country, we must govern them upon their own principles and maxims, and not upon ours. We must not think to force them into the narrow circle of our ideas; we must extend ours to take in their system of opinions and rites, and the necessities which result from both: all change on their part is absolutely impracticable. We have more versatility of character and manners, and it is we who must conform.[1]

  It is a rich irony that Edmund Burke, one of the chief prosecutors of Warren Hastings (and certainly the most outspoken), shared these principles in common with the very man whose principles of colonial administration he was trying, on charges of high crimes and misde-meanors, for his Governor-Generalship of Bengal under the East India Company (1772-86).[2] According to Burke and Hastings, India and the rest of the Orient had "stopped" developing; yet the ways in which these two great adversaries both proposed to resolve this apparent dilemma of colonial rule stand in marked opposition to the various British answers to the so-called Eastern Question that were proposed only a decade or two later in the early nineteenth century (by, for example, James Mill, Thomas Macaulay, Robert Southey, and others). This opposition, I believe, underlies a struggle between two significantly different and conflicting constructions of Britain's Orient, and, moreover, between two antithetical paradigms of British imperialism and colonial rule. What I want to suggest in the present chapter is that the romantic period marked a transitional moment between these opposed sets of colonial projects. Furthermore, I want to argue that the later paradigms -- including those that pertain to what we may, with Edward Said, distinguish as modern Orientalism, to which I will turn shortly [3] -- developed during this period through a productive intersection or fusion with other emergent modern discourses and structures, including those of racism, evolution, progressivism, and industrial capitalism. The emergence of these discourses and paradigms thus transfigured earlier notions and constructs of the Orient, as well as earlier modes of empire-building, of colonial rule, of discourses on Nature and the colonial other, and of history.

  That the East had somehow "stopped developing," which (together with the duty or good fortune of imperial rule) both earlier and later views agree on, is in itself not particularly useful or important for either view. What matters instead is how to administer and govern -- not to mention trade with and understand -- populations in such a state. And it is on this point that the radical disagreement arises. Burke very shrewdly uses a spatial figure, the sea, to illustrate the gap between Britain and its colonial subjects in India. The sea, he argues, simultaneously separates and unites the two countries; the political, economic, military, and cultural ties between metropolis and colony are drawn through the sea and the endless tide of shipping that cleared British ports each week for Bombay and Calcutta, taking with them news, information, manufac-tured goods, troops, and supplies; and bringing back the bounty of colonial wealth: cotton, silk, textiles, calicoes, tea, spices, knowledge, and the profits from the East India Company's monopoly (from 1773) on opium sales to China. And yet, Burke says, "the sea is between us," thus "forbidding, forever, any direct contact between that country and this." The sea is hence also an obstacle, which can be crossed in one direction but not in the other (or, rather, by one party in both directions). It figures as a gap in status and development between India and Britain, simultaneously a material and a metaphorical barrier. Just as, according to Burke, the Indians cannot -- purely on account of their own limitations -- cross the material sea and travel to England, India itself cannot cross the great metaphorical divide of development to become like Britain. Instead of what will appear in more modern accounts as the great stream of time and of evolution (so cogently discussed by Johannes Fabian[4]), Burke here posits an immense ocean, which by its nature does not flow in one direction like a river, but which remains stationary: a massive, enormous, and permanent barrier.

  Since Indians cannot travel to Britain, and since India cannot develop towards or into Britain, Burke argues, it is morally required that Britain keep an eye over who goes to India from Britain, in order to "protect" India and Indians from the likes of Warren Hastings. In a larger sense, though, what Burke wants to insist upon (and indeed what Hastings himself had not only insisted upon but had made into colonial policy) is the "fact" that, since the metaphorical journey of development from east to west cannot be accomplished ("all change on their part is absolutely impracticable"), what is paramount is that the imperial move from west to east be guided by the "limitations" imposed by eastern concepts. In terms of colonial administration, Burke says that this means that "we must govern them upon their principles and maxims, and not upon ours."

  Of course, neither Burke nor Hastings questions for a moment that Britain should rule India; rather, the question is how it should rule, for whose ostensible benefit, and on what terms, and how it should manage its relations with the peoples of India and the Orient which they are made to "represent." According to Burke, the East India Company derives its authority not only from the British Parliament, but from the Mogul empire itself. He argues, however, that the Moguls, due to their weakness (which was, not coincidentally, partly fostered by the East India Company), are incapable of controlling the rapaciousness of the Company, and hence that it falls to the British Parliament to act as enforcer, in the name of Britian and its Constitution as well as in the name of the Moguls and of the people of India - and indeed in the name of the universal "rights of man." [5]

  For it is, fundamentally, in the name of the otherwise silent Indian people that Burke proposes to speak, just as it is in their name that he proposes that Britain have dominion over them, saying that "at length justice will be done to India." [6] Yet the colonial mission which Burke envisions is not one of transformation and improvement, of which India is simply not capable. Indeed, that India is not as "developed" as Britain does not by any means suggest for Burke that it ought to be as developed as Britain, let alone that it is Britain's duty to improve it (just as, according to Burke, the landed classes in Britain neither could nor should help to improve the condition of the nascent working class, the "swinish multitude" who were "utterly incapable of amendment; objects of eternal vigilance" [7]). On the contrary: India is and will forever be the way it is; in its very otherness it is immutable and unchangeable. However - and this is what makes Burke's so radically different from later conceptions of Britain's imperial project - there is nothing wrong with this otherness on its own terms, and "we" must accommodate "ourselves" to "their" status, radical difference, and immutable otherness, not the other way around. "My Lords," Burke insists, "these Gentoo people are the original people of Hindostan. They are still, beyond comparison, the most numerous. Faults this nation may have; but God forbid that we should pass judgement upon people who framed their laws and institu tions prior to our insect origins of yesterday. With all the faults of their nature and errors of their institutions, their institutions, which act so powerfully on their natures, have two material characteristics which entitle them to respect: first, great force and stability; and next, excellent moral and civil effects." [8] Elsewhere Burke says that the Indians, whom the distinguishes from Africans and native Americans (who are "an abject and barbarous populace," made up of "gangs of savages"), are a people "for ages cultivated and civilized, - cultivated by all the arts of polished life, whilst we were yet in the woods." [9]

  Burke's impassioned (and often quite hysterical) speeches on India are characterized by an underlying tension between, on the one hand, his universalistic claims about the trans-cultural and univocal "nature" (and hence "rights") of humankind; and, on the other, his repeated invocation of a version of polygenesis as well as the contemporaneous scientific (and, I would argue, political) concepts of preformationism and anti-mutationism, according to which "improvement" in level and status, whether for species, for individuals, for societies, or for classes, is impossible.[10] (Here Burke's views on class structure are once again of great significance; his belief in the immutability of India and its inability to change its status vis-á-vis Britain has an almost exact equivalent inhis claims that the working class of England should and must accept its permanent and natural subordination to the higher classes.[11]

  While, for the most part, Burke insists upon the static immutability and everlasting difference from England of India and Indian culture -- an immutability which for him merits great respect for that culture -- he also invokes the possibility of mutation and development (as in the case of Britain, which developed out of the "the woods" of its "insect origins of yesterday"). Moreover, he vehemently denounces the notion of "geographic morality" and insists that "the laws of morality are the same everywhere," because all human beings and societies share certain fundamental qualities and rights -- qualities and rights that implicitly deny the possibility of totally separate spheres of existence, separate histories, separate destinies.[12]

  In other words, Burke's attitudes towards India and the Orient oscillate between, on the one hand, an extreme kind of cultural relativism; and, on the other, contradictory claims to and invocations of certain transcultural and universal laws and tendencies of humankind. The former view is, in Burke, related to preformationist scientific concepts.[13] According to such concepts, there is a wide though static range of human types, an extension of the animal world's great chain of being (near the top of which, just beneath the angels, stand all the human types in ascending order), some perhaps higher than others on the chain, yet not capable of mutation to a higher or lower level.[14] Thus the ontogenetic development of an individual organism (in a process known as "evolution" before the nineteenth century changed the usage of that term) takes place only to a certain fixed or predetermined level, and never beyond it. Ontogenetic transmutation to a higher stage of development, like phylogenetic transmutation to a higher species-form, is inconceivable in these terms.[15] And yet, at the same time, Burke anticipates the possibility, if not quite the inevitability, of social "evolution" and of the concept of national "development" according to which all societies could be placed on a temporal slope, a "stream of time" leading to and culminating in Eurocentric modernity.[16] These contradictory claims and concepts are thoroughly intertwined in Burke's attitudes towards India, and indeed in a broader set of British attitudes towards the Orient in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

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