Firstly, thank you to everyone who attended our seminar at Oxford this past Friday on “Snapshots of Empire: Imperial governance everywhere and all at once.” It was great to see so many people so engaged with the work we are doing.
Reflecting on the experience, the question period yielded some intriguing ideas and provided the team with a considerable amount to think about in the weeks to come.
One question we were asked that is worth elaborating on here was the extent to which we are assigning authority to white men working in bureaucratic offices in London. In response, we are studying the Colonial and India Offices as just one part of a very complex network of agency and control, spread between the metropole and the colonies, between the colonisers and the colonised. Rather than diminishing the agency of local officials and non-European peoples, this project is, in acknowledging the limits of control exercised by London, trying to examine these complicated webs of power and authority. We are, however, hoping to shed light on the role played by the offices in London as communication nodes, facilitating inter-colonial and even inter-imperial connections. This will, in turn, enhance our understanding of imperial governmentality, recognising the officials in London both for the circumscribed part they did play and for their performance of power in the imagination of a British Empire.
Another subject that arose in discussion was that of “triage.” In this, the distinction between the performance of power in London and the practice of control in the colonies is made apparent. It was discussed on Friday that, in London, the amount or expression of control exercised might have varied depending on the particular policies or geographical spaces under discussion. For example, issues of public health considered of grave importance in India appear comparatively little in the records of the Board of Control. It is therefore important that, in the course of our research, we identify what factors might have caused issues to move up the agenda, to catch the attention of senior officials in London, and why topics considered important in London might have been deemed less so in the colonies (and vice versa). The same issue could also have different meanings according to the politics of location. Taking that example of public health, while officials in India may have been concerned more with the health of Indian subjects, the Board of Control may have emphasised the health of British soldiers and officials.
To these ends, the notion of “anthropologising London” was raised. Understanding the specific personalities making decisions, and the bureaucratic cultures of the London offices, will be important. In addition, we must consider the social and political climate in England at the time. The rising prominence of humanitarian groups in 1838 would have put pressure on officials to pay due attention to connected issues – such as indigenous disputes with settler populations in the Cape Colony or the welfare of formerly enslaved people in the West Indies – and to make rulings more in line with public opinion. Similarly, the potential for financial embarrassment in times of retrenchment or, even worse, raising a quarrel with a foreign power, would have perhaps brought certain issues to the top of the agenda. With this in mind, pressure from other departments, such as the Treasury or the Foreign Office, would have likewise shaped policy stemming from the Colonial and East India Company/Board of Control Offices.
Ultimately, our experience at the Global and Imperial History Seminar, I think highlighted the importance of distinguishing between the practice of empire at home, and that in the colonies. In emphasising their ties, we also emphasise their limits, distinctive cultures, practises of power, and varied participants. The performance of empire at the centre was, in many ways just that, shaping the picture displayed to the general public in England and to other European powers. In practice, the conduct of imperial power was played out across the globe in many different ways by many different parties. However, what this project will emphasise is the interconnectedness between those many entities, as well as the role played by the London offices and their particular constructions of empire, in coordinating those networks and producing a conceptual British Empire.