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Romantic Imperialism

by Saree Makdisi

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

  In other words, there were both cultural and economic benefits to be obtained from this state of immutable difference among human groups, benefits that, indeed, could not be obtained without such an absolute sense of alterity and the various "ideologies of free trade" that help to constitute it. For the very logic of the East India Company (chartered in 1600), which brought Britain and British interests to India to begin with, had been predicated upon the lucrative commercial exchange of exotic goods -- and hence the commodification of difference -- with this other society. The original mercantile aim of the Company had been, as Ramkrishna Mukherjee observes, to obtain and secure a monopoly over this supply and the exchange of Indian and British goods. Their problem, indeed, had been what to "exchange" in return for Indian commodities (the East India and especially the China trades had been steadily draining Britain's supply of silver and gold; the "solution" was simultaneously to develop the opium trade with China to pay for Chinese tea and silk, and to subjugate India in order to obtain Indian goods at little expense).[28]

  Mercantile capitalism, with its emphasis on the circulation rather than the production of goods -- through monopoly wherever possible, which the various British Companies [29] as well as others, like the Dutch East India Company (VOC), were invariably granted by their home governments -- sought the preservation rather than the transformation of otherness, even if this "preservation" involved (with cruel irony) the ruthless annihilation of anything that impeded its intensive exploitation. [30] Industrial capitalism, on the other hand, stresses production and the productive trasformation of otherness, beginning with the crude material of Nature itself, and hence the relegation of circulation, which then becomes merely a moment of production rather than the end-in-itself that it was for the various trading Companies and for the empires they helped to build. The struggle between these two forms of capitalism, from its beginnings in the romantic period, intensified during the debate over the Corn Laws (1812-46), and was ultimately "won" by the institutions and structures of industrial capital. The latter's "victory" was marked, on the one hand, by the abolition of the Corn Laws, and on the other hand by the gradual substitution of exotic colonial goods by cheap industrially engineered and produced commodities (e.g., the replacement of cane sugar by beet root, the substitution of synthetic textiles for raw cotton, etc.); as well as by the abolition of the mercantile Companies' monopolies on trade (1813 for the East India Company), and then the total abolition of such institutions as the East India Company itself (following the doomed Indian Rebellion of 1857).

  The form of imperial control associated with mercantile capital generally involved the acquisition of key trading posts and the control over essential caravan routes, navigable rivers and channels, ports, and a few points of production or extraction.[31] Thus, as Eric Hobsbawm points out, for much of the early history of British imperialism, the British were content to hold strategic points crucial to their global trading interests, such as the southern tip of Africa, Gibraltar, Ceylon, and Singapore (founded just after the Napoleonic wars); "on the whole,with one crucial exception, their view was that a world lying open to British trade and safeguarded by the British navy from unwelcome intrusion was more cheaply exploited without the administrative costs of occupation." [32] The crucial exception to which Hobsbawm points was of course India; but even here the British presence was small by later nineteenth-century standards, and until the mid- to late eighteenth century, the British dominiation of India was based on control of shipping lanes and of a few key ports and inland garrisons and settle-ments. [33] However, it was also in India that British imperial attitudes and policies began to change dramatically, away from those held by Burke, Jones, and Hastings.

  Indeed, just as Edmund Burke's attitudes towards India are characterized by a tension or contradiction between his insistence on, first, the untranslatable and immutable specificities of India's culture and civilization, and, second, his repeated invocation of certain "universal" qualities of humankind, so indeed are Jones's. For while Jones stresses the (intellectual, aesthetic, and commercial) value of the sheer and untransformable cultural and civilizational difference from Britain of India and the rest of the Orient, his work on Oriental history and, above all, on the nascent field of Oriental philology was part of a much larger process of "discovering" and tracing certain linguistic, historical, cultural and social continuities between the Orient and Europe. These continuities would ultimately not only contradict but also finally discredit the notion of separate (polygenic) spheres of existence and contribute instead towards the emergence of universally applicable "laws" of evolution and development linking -- rather than permanently separating -- Asia and Europe.[34] While it may indeed be the case that philology was the first discipline to be based on the emergent concept of evolution,[35] it is important to stress that for scholars like Jones in the late eighteenth century, there was no sense of progress associated with the growth and expansion of the various branches of a language "family." [36] Nevertheless, in tracing the cultural and historical links between Europe and the Orient, Jones contributed to the emergence of a new sense of temporality and of history in early nineteenth-century Britain. According to this new vision, history is constructed as a unilinear stream teleologically pointing "towards" modernity and Europe, into which other histories are incorporated as subordinate elements in a larger universal History -- a History henceforth to be narrated and controlled by Europeans.[37]

  While the respect shown by Burke and Jones to India and Indian culture is related to their perception of the Orient's utter distinction from (and synchronic, rather than diachronic, relation to [38]) Europe, the growing British resistance to this sense of immutable and untransformable cultural dissonance drew its strength from an insistence on the new construction of history and appeals to certain universally applicable forces and currents (as with the historicism of Herder and Hegel). And while their stress on India's non-transformability (not to mention the value and attraction of its cultural "dissonance") is an indissoluble aspect of Burke's and Jones's views of India, the emergent conceptions of the Orient stress the fundamental importance of alteration and "improvement" to the productive global transformation of difference which was central to the emergent forces and institutions of industrial capitalism.

  By the early nineteenth century, as I have already said, British attitudes towards, policies in, and above all inventions of the Orient had been turned upside-down; so that by the 1830s, for instance, new advocates of imperialism, such as Macaulay, could declare without any hesitation not only that earlier imperialists such as Jones and even Hastings were naïve and misguided, but that "a single shelf of a good European library was worth more than the whole native literature of India and Arabia." [39] The exoticism of difference and otherness had begun, as it were, to fade, in association with major shifts in both the paradigms of empire and versions or visions of the space of the Orient, as well as fundamental shifts in scientific and social theories (intertwined from at least Malthus onwards [40]) of evolution and "progress." The Company's 1757 victory at Plassey, for one, had already signalled the development of new forms of imperial investment and control in India, which accelerated through the eighteenth century (e.g., the Regulating Act of 1773, the India Act of 1784), culminating in a major overhaul of imperial policy after the trial of Warren Hastings and on into the nineteenth century. 

  The extraordinarily long trial of Hastings, which ran for a full seven years from 1788 to 1795, has, not surprisingly, been identified as one of the great "trials of empire" and of the colonial project itself, in which Hastings's own status as the accused became less and less relevant as the proceedings dragged on.[41] That Hastings was eventually acquitted and exonerated was, indeed, not of any particular interest to the debates surrounding the trial. As Suleri points out, not only did the charges against Hastings represent "the first exhaustive compilation of colonial guilt to emerge from the colonization of India," but "the issue of his guilt or innocence was obsolete, almost totally irrelevant to the trial proceedings themselves." [42]

  What the trial brought up for thorough consideration, however, included the administrative policies of the East India Company in Bengal, but above all the relations between Britain and the subjects (and victims) of its empire in India. One of the issues that had brought the corruption charges against Hastings was the question of whether or not England ought to transform and "improve" India. Hastings himself, like this enemy Burke and his colleague Jones, opposed such a policy; and one of his principal accusers, Philip Francis, a Company official, argued strongly that Indian laws and institutions should be uprooted and replaced with more "rational" and "advanced" British laws. Even before the conclusion of the trial, such policies, which had been vigorously prevented by Hastings during his own administration, were put into effect by the Permanent Settlement of 1793, which, for instance, at one stroke transformed the zamindars -- the Mogul tax-collectors (over whom the Company now had power) -- into landlords in the capitalist sense, and their previous area of responsibility into their private property; so that the people under their control suddenly became their paying tenants, at exactly the same time as the Scottish Highlanders became the tenants, and then quickly the ex-tenants, of their clan chiefs, through similar legislation in Scotland.[43]

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