Welcome to Snapshots of Empire. Over the next fifteen months, we’ll be using this blog to share regular updates, reveal our methodological challenges, tell stories, and explore some of the main themes of our research as they emerge.
So: how did a relatively small number of people in the nineteenth century – almost all male, almost all white, almost all drawn from the elite – control an empire that spanned the globe and governed the destinies of millions of subjects?
Trying to answer this question only reveals further unknowns: How did the technologies of writing and recording effect control over huge distances and, often, long time lags? How did new technologies of steam navigation, telegraph, and railway change these processes? How did the centre of empire control its furthest edges? What tension, attrition, or resistance did the metropole encounter in extending its networks? What cultures of rule and conceptions of identity developed in concert with the techniques of governance? What did those elite white men think they were doing, and how did they talk about it? How were the discourses and ideologies of empire produced and reproduced through its administrative technologies?
These are but a few of the questions we hope to examine over the course of this project. As a starting point, we will adopt a comprehensive approach to the study of materials from each of three target years: 1838, 1857, and 1879. Taking ‘snapshots’ of only a few months from those years, we’re going to read all correspondence going in and out of the India Office and Colonial Office – the two main agencies which sat at the centre of the imperial web – and try to get a sense of how empire was administrated ‘everywhere and all at once.’
But why do this work?
In histories of the British Empire, two major trends have emerged in recent decades. On the one hand are the big survey studies that focus on how the empire developed and took shape, and how we can understand it – politically, ideologically, and economically – on a broader level. On the other are those studies loosely defined as part of the ‘new imperial history’, which draw on cultural studies and the critical lexicons of gender and the postcolonial to construct empire as a contested web of personal and ideological connections. While the former often focus on the agencies of powerful white policy-makers, the latter, by contrast, tend toward area studies and the microhistorical to examine how relations of power were negotiated in the Empire’s zones of contact.
Few studies, however, have considered imperial governance as the art of overseeing people and territory everywhere and all at once, or the management of multiple and simultaneous events across the globe. Our new project seeks to do just that.
We also hope to address some of the divisions within the study of empire which reflect the compartmentalised structure of colonial government. Under the East India Company (and, after 1858, the India Office), different constitutional arrangements made the governance of India distinct from that of many Crown colonies; the Company had its own separate fiscal, military and judicial establishments, its own training college, and, by the nineteenth century, its own distinctive culture and jargon. Likewise, the Foreign and Colonial Offices had their own recruitment procedures, career structures, and office cultures, and governed colonies whose geographical dispersal and varying administrative challenges resisted uniform approaches. Even now, the archives of the Colonial Office are all in the National Archives in Kew, while those of the East India Company and the India Office are in the British Library. Following up the histories of each involves different locations and access logistics: the divisions in how the empire was run are replicated, in some ways, in the act of trying to write their history.
But these divisions aren’t absolute: the men who ran the empire exchanged ideas, shared cultures and spaces, and travelled between colonies and territories. We will be tracing how the Colonial Office and the East India Company/ India Office interacted with each other, corresponded, collaborated, coordinated policy, and responded to the demands and interventions of other government agencies. Kate Boehme and Pete Mitchell, our two postdoctoral researchers, will be working in the Colonial Office Records and the India Office records respectively: as we trawl through the archives, we’ll be looking out especially for correspondence between the offices, for points of contact and commonality.
In the coming months, we’ll be sharing our progress with you, giving show-and-tells of the things we find in the archives, developing our research themes and exploring the methodological challenges that the project presents. We’ll be bringing to light, too, some of the stranger things we find in the archives, and the unexpected twists we encounter. If nothing else, we hope it’s entertaining.