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The East India Company

2018 lecture

Portrait of Akbar II with Sir Charles Theophilus Metcalfe
and court dignitaries, Delhi ca. 1825, Victoria & Albert Museum Collections.

This session charts the rise and fall of the English East India Company, culminating in the Uprising of 1857 and its immediate aftermath. The empire which the Company established in India in the eighteenth century was in many ways revolutionary; for the first time, Britons assumed administrative responsibility for an unprecedented number of non-Christian, non-European subjects. Accordingly, the Company’s regime has often been viewed as a kind of launching pad or laboratory for further imperial expansion in the nineteenth century. Yet, historians continue to debate the nature and impact of the transformations wrought by the Company in India during this period. This week, we will trace changing attitudes to imperial administration within the Company, assess its effects on Indian society, and, crucially, examine how Company rule was enabled, exploited, and resisted by Indians.

Seminar questions

  • How important was ideology to the development of the British empire in India?
  • In what ways did knowledge translate into power in colonial India?
  • To what extent did the administration of the East India Company represent a break with the pre-colonial past?
  • How would you describe the relationship between state and society in colonial India?

Required reading

Robert Travers, ‘Ideology and British Expansion in Bengal, 1757-72’, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 33, no. 1 (2005): 7-27.

Jon E. Wilson, ‘Anxieties of Distance: Codification in Early Colonial Bengal’, Modern Intellectual History 4, no. 1 (2007): 7-23.

Lata Mani, ‘Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India,’ in Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History, eds. Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid (New Brunswick, NJ, 1990), p. 88-126.

Further reading

  1. R. Metcalfe, Ideologies of the Raj (Cambridge, 1995), chapter 2.

Lakshmi Subramanian, ‘Banias and the British: The Role of Indigenous Credit in the Process of Imperial Expansion in Western India in the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century’, Modern Asian Studies 21, no. 3 (1987): 473-510.

Durba Ghosh, Sex and the Family in Colonial India: The Making of Empire (Cambridge, 2006).

Michael Fisher, ‘Indirect Rule in the British Empire: The Foundations of the Residency System in India (1764-1858)’, Modern Asian Studies 18, no. 3 (1984): 393-428.

Kapil Raj, ‘The Historical Anatomy of a Contact Zone: Calcutta in the Eighteenth Century’, The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 48, 1 (2011): 55-82.

C.A. Bayly, Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India (Cambridge, 1996), chapters 2 and 9.

Bernard S. Cohn, Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (Princeton, NJ, 1996), chapter 3.

Radhika Singha, ‘”Providential” Circumstances: The Thuggee Campaign of the 1830s and Legal Innovation’, Modern Asian Studies 27, no. 1 (1993): 83-146.

Biswamoy Pati, ed., The 1857 Rebellion (Oxford, 2007).

Gautam Chakravarty, The Indian Mutiny and the British Imagination (Cambridge, 2005).