A couple of weeks ago the Snapshots of Empire team were very kindly invited to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to take part in a panel discussion as part of a History Week the FCO were running for their staff. For us, as historians of imperial governmentality, the experience of walking through the extravagant neo-classical kitsch of George Gilbert Scott’s building, and presenting our research in the same rooms where the people we study transacted their business – the politics, ethics and meaning of which are, to put it diplomatically (no pun intended), something of a vexed question – was a slightly discombobulating experience. But the session was fruitful, and the FCO gave us a fantastically warm welcome. We can’t write much here about what was discussed – Chatham House rules were in force – but a couple of comments from respondents stuck with us.
The first was about power and powerlessness. It’s easy to think of government as something which makes a claim to omniscient, omnipotent power; to, if you like, extend to the state’s actual operations its ideological claims to totalising power. But this is a mistake: power is attritional, partial, improvisatory and always to some extent frustrated. Government functionaries (the people who run bureaucracies, set policy, and effect change) tend, if anything, to be preoccupied with what they can’t do. The second point was about information. “If you think it’s hard waiting three months to get a reply to a letter”, said a diplomat, who we can assume knew first-hand what he was talking about, “you should try having an email inbox.” Information, its speed and volume, how it gets from one place to another, and what you do with it when you have it: these are perennial problems of governance, and the problem of how to turn information into usable knowledge is as likely to be frustrated by a surplus as by a drought.
The intersections between these two things – power and information – seem to have been painfully obvious to Major John Green, HM Acting Vice Consul in Alexandria during the imperial upheaval of 1857. Green was tasked with managing British affairs in the critical communicational and transportation bottleneck of the Egyptian Isthmus. In 1857, almost all communications from India travelled by steamer into the Red Sea, over the isthmus from Suez to Alexandria, and then onwards to Britain. It was Green’s responsibility, in practice, to make sure that the mails were disembarked safely, carried as fast as possible between the two ports, and put aboard the earliest possible mail steamer departing for Europe. In the summer and autumn of 1857, he also had to manage the rather delicate logistics of getting British troops and their light equipment across the isthmus disguised as civilians with their usual baggage. At the same time, the diplomatic aspect of these operations had to be managed through constant contact with the British ambassador in the Ottoman capital and the often tricky business of staying on good terms with the local Pasha.
In September of that year, Green wrote a letter to Lord Canning, the Governor-General in India, begging for there to be some arrangement by which the current state of affairs in India could be abstracted and condensed in an official dispatch. “Under instructions from [Foreign Minister] the Earl of Clarendon”, he writes, “I have since the commencement of serious disturbances in India, transmitted by the earliest opportunities such items of intelligence as I have been able to gather here. The means of information at my disposal having been extremely deficient, the messages on more than one occasion have been vague & confused, tho’ fortunately none have hitherto proved incorrect. … I am therefore entirely dependent as regards telegraphic news from Suez, on the agent of the Transit Administration, who copies statements made up by the Pursers on board the Steamers. When the news, however, is sent from here by the same conveyances as carry the mails, I have generally time to examine an Indian Newspaper.” (IOR L/PS/3/56,
“The last mail”, he continues, “was about to close, before I proceeded in borrowing a Calcutta Newspaper, & on the document, and this document only, I had to form in a very limited space of time, the official Bulletin, which was to be circulated to millions at home, & translated into a score of languages, to be commented on throughout Europe. Meanwhile the ‘Times’ correspondent was framing his Message from files of Papers from every Presidency, letters of correspondents purposely written for publication, & others of a more confidential nature, from which he could form a judgement of the various opinions & views of parties on the spot.”
Poor old Green. But what this is about, really, is regimes of information: who gets the burden of transmitting it, who gets the privilege of turning it into a usable narrative as a basis for action or propaganda (a different type of action), and how a state should organize its affairs in order to enforce what we’d now call ‘message discipline’. Green’s problem here, of which he’s clearly painfully conscious, is that he’s been given responsibility for turning information into knowledge, and he has precious few resources – time, information itself, expertise – with which to do it. Consequently, public knowledge about the Uprising depends to an uncomfortable extent on what he manages to glean from second-hand accounts, hastily-read Indian news media, and fragmentary reports. If anything, Green has too much power, and power of a kind which should be vested elsewhere; he clearly believes that the Company and the British Government should be controlling their own public narrative rather than allowing independent (and possibly critical) news media the privilege of being able to narrate events with well-sourced information.
Green suggests that Canning relieve him of this burden by making an abstract of Indian affairs: “[w]ere official accounts of the events of this fortnight transmitted from Calcutta, Madras & Bombay to the Vice Consul at Suez, with orders to telegraph them immediately to me, I shld be in a position to forward them in anticipation of the regular Mail”. This absolves Green of the responsibility that’s bothering him: it’s also a sensible policy of informational discipline.
The telegraph, too, throws up some interesting difficulties regarding informational security. Telegraph networks were still fragmentary at this point, so messages had to be forwarded from several waystations on the journey from India to Britain. Moreover, the lines themselves were owned by private companies and fell under the laws of the territories they crossed: some states, such as Austria (which telegrams from India had to cross if they went by the faster route of Trieste) didn’t allow cipher. Green is concerned that information transmitted across the Egyptian peninsular is liable to leak: “[i]n respect to anything of a more confidential nature, wch it wld not be desirable to telegraph thro’ Egypt, thus making it prematurely public, such intelligence might be sent by despatch to me, under cover to the Vice Consul at Suez, with instructions to forward it to me by the 1st express.”
This brings us back to our contemporary diplomat’s remark about email: instantaneity is a wonderful tool, but other things – comprehensibility, manageability, and in this case security – can be more important. As Green intuits, mere movement does not make a useful network: there need to be points at which information is processed, assimilated and organized, submitted to regimes of ordering that make it useful. This tension between the desire to know everything immediately and the necessity of ordering it into something that forms a basis for action and policy is something that would come to occupy imperial governments increasingly through the late nineteenth century, as an information revolution challenged old practices of governance, institutional structures and, indeed, conceptions of power and statehood. By the end of the century, imperial governments would be drowning in information, and talented or eccentric individuals would begin to devise elaborate schemes for producing comprehensive archives of imperial knowledge. As Thomas Richards outlines in his The Imperial Archive, the fantasy of a total archive of global knowledge would begin increasingly to animate imperial fictions and ideologies; as many other scholars have noted, institutions would increasingly begin to aspire towards the condition of Latourian ‘centres of calculation’. But that, I hope, is a subject for another blog.
– Peter Mitchell