Worldlets: Pitcairn, Wrangel, and the ragged margins of Empire

A few months ago, the Snapshots team attended a one-day workshop on “islands in history”  at the University of Leicester. The range of viewpoints and methodologies on display was slightly dizzying, but we came away with some fairy niggling questions: how do islands function as spaces in global history? In what does their ‘islandness’ consist, within the wider webs of empire, colony, state, trade and culture? How can we pursue a history and historiography of the global through such tightly bounded, but often richly connected spaces? How do we parse that boundedness, and that connectedness, and to what extent are they related?

One of the challenges of an island historiography, we found, is that they’re strangely overdetermined places: we tend to want to make them bear freights of meaning and signification beyond what we might expect of other spaces, loading them down with narrative, resonance and symbolic importance. Recent pictures from the South China Sea, where China is converting semi-submerged reefs and atolls into military installations, make small islands’ importance in global history palpable. The jostling between regional powers over the Spratly Islands, involving both military installations and ambitious reinterpretations of the law of the sea and its bearing on zones of influence, underscores one of the most crudely instrumental uses to which islands tend to be put, as points from which to dominate space through the projection of brute force and legal convention. But it’s worth thinking about the other functions islands fulfil, not only in concrete terms but at the same time in what we might call the political imaginary. Islands figure as spaces of quarantine and incarceration (think of Napoleon on St Helena, Sakhalin, Solovetsky and the prison islands of Australia; think, more recently, of Nauru and Christmas Island); places of refuge, exile, isolation and visions (think Gauguin and Melville in the Pacific, The Tempest, Robinson Crusoe); places of religious incubation, monasticism and prayer (the history of Celtic Christianity, for example, is intimately bound up with island spaces); outposts of the military state, useful for defining spheres of influence, for surveillance and for the projection of force (those troublesome Spratlys again, Diego Garcia, Ascension); and as the poisoned, blasted testing-grounds of technological apocalypse (think Gruinard Island, Bikini, Enewetak and Moruroa Atolls, Novaya Zemlya and the Montebello Islands).

In the political imaginary, they figure as rather different spaces: as mirrors which reflect and critique ‘mainland’ societies, and as microcosms in which societies’ alternative dispensations or possible futures, bright or catastrophic, might be acted out. Hence More’s Utopia and the satires of Gulliver’s Travels, the Edens and dystopias of Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson and Lord of the Flies. Considering it has no place on any map, The Tempest’s enchanted isle must be some of the most contested real estate in the history of colony and postcolony. Islands serve as elegiac symbols for the erasure of localist specificity by modernity (St Kilda, the drowning atolls of Micronesia) and as monitory narratives of ecological catastrophe and societal collapse (the destruction of the Dodo on Mauritius, the deforestation of Easter Island). These fables, like all the rest, often don’t hold up to scrutiny: St Kilda seems to have been less fun to inhabit than the romantic imagination suggests, and the collapse of society on Easter Island may have owed as much to global climate as to local failures. But island tales are often written disproportionately large.

How we might integrate an awareness of this complex history into our work at Snapshots of Empire is an open-ended question. In a recent blog, Kate Boehme read the Colonial Office records of St Helena, situating the island within global networks of power and communication and exploring how its governance during the global crisis of 1857 owed to a complex series of policy calculations encompassing contexts both local and global. In Kate’s work on St Helena, it’s possible to approach an idea of islands as hybrid spaces, both remote and intimately networked; and as places where policy and infrastructure, however small a scale they’re played out on, interrelate with those of other colonies, and the empire at large, in interesting and complex ways.

That tension between islands’ remoteness and the efforts to bring them within the networks of imperial power – and the strategies and technologies by which that move might be effected, and indeed the question of whether it’s worth doing at all – is something which comes up quite dramatically in two island stories from the Colonial Office records surrounding our current ‘snapshot’ of 1879. Both involve islands whose extreme isolation renders them as marginal as it’s possible to be on the imperial map; both concern the question of possession and sovereignty; and both come back, essentially, to inter-imperial competition, and the ways in which, by this point in the late nineteenth century, the progressive parcelling-out of the world between rival empires was reaching its endgame.



The islands are Pitcairn and Wrangel. Pitcairn Island, smack bang in the middle of the South Pacific, is famous as the place where the surviving Bounty mutineers settled; Wrangel Island, a tract of tundra and mountain off Russia’s Arctic coast, is primarily known now as the last place where woolly mammoths are known to have survived, as recently as 4,000 years ago. In Pitcairn’s case, the primary question was how to integrate this staggeringly remote and tiny community with the empire at large, and how to control and manage its population. In Wrangel’s case, it was whether Britain should care at all. The outcomes were as different as the islands. But in following through how the encounter between place and governmentality played out in the bureaucratic world of the imperial centre, and situating the islands within the cultural life and the political and geographical imaginaries of the time, we might be able to look towards a fuller appreciation of how such places can be read as constituting the ragged boundaries of empire: places where political authority and geographical knowledge stretch and fray, where the usual policymaking process is of doubtful utility and the lines of communication fragile.



Pitcairn and Wrangel Islands. Pitcairn is, you will note, small.

Pitcairn and Wrangel Islands. Pitcairn is, you will note, small. (Images courtesy of Wikipedia)


Pitcairn Island: “Puerile Simplicity”

In December 1878, the Colonial Office received a despatch from the Admiralty, enclosing a letter from Rear-Admiral A.F.R. de Horsey, C-in-C of the Pacific Station of the Royal Navy.[1] Horsey’s letter, written aboard his ship Shah on September the 17th of the year before – meaning that it had taken over a year to get into the hands of the CO – reports that, en route from Esquimault (the naval station near modern-day Vancouver) to Valparaiso in Chile, he had called at Pitcairn Island. His account takes up 16 numbered paragraphs, and touches on the current population, the system of government and the social and economic arrangements of the island. He appends a census of the 91 inhabitants and a brief table of its laws.

The account is businesslike enough, but Horsey’s obvious fascination with Pitcairn exceeds the strictures of a bureaucratic communiqué. The island is, he points out, “the only spot of British territory lying in the vast triangle between Vancouver, Falkland, and Fiji Islands”, and its uniquely isolated society, in his account, subscribes happily to almost all the tropes of island as pastoral idyll and utopian micropolity:

The almost puerile simplicity of the laws is perhaps the best evidence of the good conduct of the people. The law is, in fact, merely preventive, no case of theft, fornication, or use of profane language (apparently the only three crimes contemplated as possible) having been known to occur since the laws were drawn up.

If this “puerile simplicity” obviates the need for a strict regime of law, the report is quick to note that the islanders’ innocence is guaranteed by a strict Protestant moral apparatus:

Divine service is held every Sunday at 10.30 a.m., and at 3 p.m., in the house built and used by John Adams for that purpose until he died in 1829. It is conducted strictly in accordance with the liturgy of the Church of England, by Mr Simon Young, their selected pastor, who is much respected. A Bible class is held every Wednesday, when all who conveniently can attend. There is also a general meeting for prayer on the first Friday in every month. Family prayers are said in every house the first thing in the morning and the last thing in the evening, and no food is partaken of without asking God’s blessing before and afterwards.  … The observance of Sunday is very strict; no work is done; but this is not in any pharisaical spirit… Of these islanders’ religious attributes no one can speak without deep respect. A people whose greatest pleasure and privilege is to commune in prayer with their God, and to join in hymns of praise, and who are, moreover, cheerful, diligent, and probably freer from vice than any other community, need no priest among them.

Pitcairn, then, is to be understood not as a savage paradise but as a self-regulating, if not highly policed, model of self-sufficient rural society. This tension between a strict ethical framework and the freedom of a people who are essentially innocent – who need, in their Edenic solitude, neither law nor priest – is taken further in the description of education:

The instruction [in the schoolhouse] comprises reading, writing, arithmetic, Scripture, history, and geography. The girls learn sewing and hat-making as well, and the whole are taught part-singing very effectively. Every child and unmarried woman at present has to attend school from nine to twelve and from one to three p.m.

…No alcoholic liquors, except for medical purposes, are used, and a drunkard is unknown. The houses are well ventilated, and furnished sufficiently for their simple wants. Scarcely any trees good for timber grow here. There is no money on the island, except such few coins as may be kept as curiosities.

These islanders might be innocent in spirit, but their bodies and intellects are disciplined according to the gendered practices of nineteenth-century elementary education. If they experience poverty – and it is clear that they do, in resources and in capital – it is a poverty that is construed as essentially benign. The silent point of reference here, perhaps, is the urban proletariat of the late Victorian imagination. Weakened and dehumanized by drink, unventilated dwellings, and a lack of correspondence between their material environments and bodily wants (dwellings without furniture, money without value, food that was not food), the industrial working class were conceived of as both an internal threat and a moral stain on British civilization. If anything represented the radical mobility of bodies, values, culture and ethics under industrial capitalism, it was them. Pitcairn, of course, presents a society in which rootedness and stability (albeit, in fact, fragile, and enforced by a vertiginous isolation) combine with virtue to stand outside of troubling historical processes. To advert to colonized or exotic cultures for a comforting antidote to the anxieties of modernity was as common a move in the late nineteenth century as it is now; in Horsey’s account, the sense of relief at having found this pre-lapsarian Little England is almost palpable.

Captain Beechey, writing fifty-three years ago, says ‘these excellent people appear to live together in perfect harmony and contentment, to be virtuous, religious, cheerful, and hospitable; to be patterns of conjugal and parental affection, and to have very few vices.’ I have ventured to quote these words as they hold true to this day, the children having followed in the footsteps of their parents.

In this account, even the continuity of generations appears guaranteed. As we’ll see, it wasn’t; Horsey’s portrayal of Pitcairn as a kind of extra-political space is at odds both with its reality and with his plans for it:

Finally, I submit to your lordships that when the service will admit it is desirable that a ship of war should visit Pitcairn annually, and I propose to cause this to be done during the remainder of my command. I submit also that this small colony is deserving such attention and encouragement as Her Majesty’s Government may think fit to hold out to it. Her Majesty does not, I believe, possess in any part of the world more loyal and affectionate subjects than this little knot of settlers. I may here observe that a notion appears to prevail among the Pitcairn Islanders that Her Majesty’s Government are displeased with them for having returned from Norfolk Island (which, as their lordships are aware, they did in two parties, the first in 1850, and the rest, I think, in 1864), although their return was, I believe, at their own expense, and they have since been no burden to the Grown. This notion, whence received I know not, I ventured to affirm was without foundation, feeling assured that Her Majesty’s Government would rather honor them for preferring the primitive simplicity of their native island to either the dissolute manners of Otaheite or even the more civilised but less pure and simple ways of Norfolk Island. No one acquainted with these islanders could fail to respect them. A religious, industrious, happy, and contented people, they will lose rather than gain by contact with other communities.

—I have, &c.,

B. De Horsey,

Rear-Admiral and Commander-in-Chief.”

What’s striking here is that Horsey prescribes a closer absorption into the remote constitutional and technological network of empire as a prophylactic against the pollutions of the informal, transimperial and unpoliced networks that are closer to hand. Pitcairn is to be preserved as a pious, endogenous, English-speaking micro-polity, in all its “puerile simplicity”, by yearly visits of a warship and the formal imposition of English sovereign law.

This is also, implicitly, an inter-imperial issue. Horsey notes tersely that “One stranger, an American, has settled on the island, a doubtful acquisition.” The man is listed in the census as Peter John Butler, 26 years old, born in Brooklyn. He arrived on the island as one of the crew of the British ship Khandish when she was wrecked on Oeno, an atoll about 100 miles away. The crew spent six weeks on Pitcairn awaiting pickup, and Butler afterwards returned to marry an island woman who had recently been widowed: the census records them living with newborn female twins and an older daughter from his wife’s first marriage.

The arrival of the American might have been unsettling, at least in part, because America was the current rival expansionist naval power in the Pacific. The CO may have been aware that the stay of the Khandish’s American sailors on Pitcairn had occasioned ongoing cultural links with San Francisco, and the prospect of a rival English-speaking power having more traffic with the islanders than Britain, however informal, must have left a sour taste.

They would also have been aware of what happened the last time an American citizen set up on Pitcairn. Joshua Hill, an adventurer and fantasist with US citizenship, had landed on Pitcairn in 1831 and spent the next seven years establishing an almost dictatorial power over the island, appointing himself President of a Pitcairn Commonwealth and giving long denunciatory sermons with a gun under his chair. Several prominent islanders fled before Hill was deposed by a visiting RN Captain and sent to London, where he continued to petition the CO and other government branches for compensation for his services.



Horsey’s dispatch: bureaucratic itinerary and cultural afterlife

All these anxieties – the foreign presence, the constitutional issue, the threat of America in the Pacific – are evident in the minutes that Horsey’s dispatch collects as it moves through the Colonial Office.

It’s worth outlining how this worked. On arrival at the CO, despatches would be provided with a printed cover-sheet, which performed several functions. First, it functioned as a form for the office to classify the despatch, assigning it a number, noting which despatches it related to, and summarising its origin and subject matter. Secondly, it recorded the despatch’s movement through the CO’s bureaucracy, as it passed over various employees’ desks. The string of minutes, usually a paragraph or two long, that accumulate on the minute sheer represent the input of the secretaries, undersecretaries, assistant undersecretaries and chief clerks who, sometimes in an orderly line of precedence and sometimes in something rather more like a back-and-forth colloquy, decided how to respond. Each intervention would be marked with the initials of the contributor; and while for many despatches it seems obvious that the real work of policymaking went on in exchanges now unrecapturable, or is recorded in more dispersed and complex paper-trails, it’s still possible in the minute-sheets of the CO records to see the distribution of roles, the sharing of expertise and the negotiation of authority between a small cast of officials. It’s possible, too, to see how these documents were read by their first recipients: what struck them as significant, what they thought inadequate, what was seen as requiring urgent attention and what wasn’t. The impression, often, is one of workaday intimacy.

The Pitcairn despatch is quickly combined with other relevant papers, accumulating a certain amount of ad hoc appendices, and a relatively long exchange extends the usual single-sheet minute paper to several leaves. The first response is from a staff member who signs himself WO (not immediately identifiable from the CO staff list for 1879 – if any well-informed readers can help us out here, do get in touch):

Mr Bramston –

See memorandum by Mr Bussell (February) and annexed respecting Pitcairn Island – it would I presume be held to belong to the British crown if any Foreign Govt attempted to take possession of it.

I was wondering yesterday when I passed 15553 how the magistrate managed to enforce the rules for the maintenance of order especially as an outsider in the shape of an American has managed to locate himself on the Island – You will best know whether the authorization sought can be given.

Norfolk Island where the majority of the descendants of the Mutineers of the Bounty are located is under the personal government of the Governor of NSW to whom the Magistrate who is annually elected looks for guidance and support. –WO

[…] It is stated in the accompanying Book on Pitcairn island – Page 252 – that the Island was taken possession of by Captain Elliott on behalf of the Brown of Great Britain on the 29th of November 1838 – WO

John Bramston was an assistant undersecretary who specialised in dealing with despatches from Canada, South Africa, Australian and Pacific colonies. By the time this one reaches him it has already accumulated a book (Pitcairn: The Island, the People, and the Pastor, by the Rev. Thomas Boyles Murray – an 1854 publication of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, of which Boyles Murray was then secretary), and an earlier memorandum from February 1878. Bramston replies by recirculating the despatch with the further addition of a set of minutes from a Cape Colony Despatch (No. 15253) relating to the constitutional arrangements of Tristan Da Cunha.

The next interlocutor is R.G.W. Herbert, the Permanent Undersecretary whose notes appear on almost every set of minutes from the period. Permanent Undersecretary was a position of enormous responsibility: while secretaries of state and parliamentary undersecretaries were political appointments, the Permanent Undersecretary a civil servant, and the running of the Office was in his hands. Herbert, who had been the first premier of Queensland from 1859 to 1866, held the post of Permanent Undersecretary from 1871 to 1892; his responsibilities in the Colonial Office List of 1879 are listed as “political and constitutional questions, general supervision, papers on all subjects before submission to Secretary of State”. It’s that last phrase that concerns us here: whatever happened to the despatch, it had to go through Herbert before it went back up to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Michael Hicks Beach. Herbert’s job at this point was to give a clear statement of the options available, and that’s what he does:

            Sir M Hicks Beach:

This paper raises the question which was much considered here in 1876 on whether an Island circumstanced as this Island & Tristan Da Cunha are should not have some recognized civil & executive power, vested by a simple & rudimentary form of commission in the person who without any authority now acts as chief magistrate in a British Territory.

Lord Carnarvon did not see his way to proceeding in the case of Tristan D’Acunha in the manner proposed: and although it is not altogether satisfactory to formally invest with executive & judicial powers an ignorant man selected by an ignorant community, it is of course also unsatisfactory to have an entire absence of legal authority on British soil.

If you think it would be well to take up this question the proposals made for Tristan d’Acunha in 1876 can be recast with the alterations then suggested by Law Officers.

RGWH, Dec 19

C Dec 21

Having been combined with the relevant documents – in this case a cross-reference with a similar constitutional puzzle from a far distant context – and endorsed (that “C Dec 21”) by George Cadogan, Earl Cadogan (1840-1915), the Parliamentary Undersecretary, the problem is now ready to be sent up the chain of command.

Hicks Beach’s reply comes down only three days later. He writes:

I think I should let this alone until we have clear proof of the necessity for our interference with a little community that has hitherto managed its own affairs. In such a place they do not want our complicated system of law – their own few simple rules can easily be enforced by themselves. It is, no doubt, an anomalous state of things: but I think less objectionable than one in which we should invest with authority a person not appointed by us; and over whom, as well as over the laws administered by him, we should have no control whatever.

We might reply to the Admiralty that we are glad to hear that they propose to make arrangements for an annual visit of a Ship of War to the Island: & thus to afford the facilities for that [recourse?] which the islanders desire to [have to?] the commanders of HM Ships in any case of difficulty – that the deference which the islanders voluntarily pay to their chief magistrate appears sufficient to enable him to deal with ordinary affairs: and that having considered Admiral de Horsey’s suggestion I do not think it advisable to comply with it but should of course be pressed to reconsider that decision if any circumstances should hereafter arise showing necessity for some action of the kind. – MWHB Dec 24

And there the matter lies. As so often in colonial administration, the question that reaches London turns out to be a question that London resolves simply to bear in mind. The matter demands no immediate response; there is no particular inclination to adopt an active policy, or no resources to hand with which to enforce it; things are best left to colonial governors on the spot, trusting to their judgment and closer understanding; any or all of these reasons might be in play.

So, for the time being, the issue of Pitcairn – whether it is to be visited yearly, what its legal and constitutional arrangements are to be, and indeed whether it is to be formally pronounced British territory except purely negatively, in the face of an immediate counter-claim – was left in abeyance. A pragmatic reluctance to tinker, and a sense of the problem’s relatively nugatory scale, won out. But the imaginative pull of islands, Pitcairn’s uniqueness and susceptibility to mythologization, and the vividness of Horsey’s narrative were to ensure that his despatch enjoyed a cultural afterlife outside the Colonial Office.

At some point in late 1878, Horsey’s account was diffused in the popular press. The Spectator’s piece on it, suggestively entitled ‘A Worldlet Within a World’, reproduced much of Horsey’s report verbatim and emphasized the island’s legibility as a microcosm or ideal micropolity, noting that previous news from there had been “like reports of the Happy Valley”.[2] The utopian character of the island community – a space where radical political experiments might be made – was seized upon by the pioneering feminist periodical The Englishwomen’s Review, which noted that “[i]f free libraries, compulsory schooling, and temperance be the concomitants of women’s suffrage, its worst opponents might wish there were more such arcadias.”[3] (Looking at some of the response, I wonder if the tension remarked on above – between Horsey’s enchanted language, and the official form of an Admiralty report – is quite on the mark. Horsey may have been well aware that his report was likely to be circulated and picked up on in the popular press.)

Horsey’s report also came to the attention of Mark Twain (yes, the Mark Twain), who was travelling in Europe at the time. Twain quickly turned it into a short story, The Great Revolution in Pitcairn, which draws on the Joshua Hill story while quoting large chunks of the report, picking up in particular on the “puerile simplicity” and the emphasis on piety. In Twain’s piece, John Butler becomes Butterworth Stavely, essentially an amplified version of Hill. Stavely, an adventurer whose arrival on Pitcairn is as abrupt and inexplicable as Hill’s was in reality, uses a dispute about a chicken – and the islanders’ mistake of keeping all their laws in a poorly-guarded strongbox – to manufacture a constitutional crisis. Whipping up anti-imperial fervour against Britain, he inveigles his way to being crowned Emperor of the Pitcairn Commonwealth, embarking on a Napoleonic career of petty tyranny and comic self-aggrandizement that inevitably sinks under the weight of its own contradictions.

Marl Twain, 1907. (Photo by A.F. Bradley)

Marl Twain, 1907. (Photo by A.F. Bradley)

Twain’s story uses the time-honoured trope of the islands as political microcosm both to take aim at some fairly obvious satirical targets (the performativity of power, the fiction of the state, the credulity of citizens) and to generate an extended series of comic setpieces based on the spectacle of a village society as small as Pitcairn’s attempting to fulfil the functions of an imperial state. But the fable maintains a careful ambivalence about empire, and doesn’t essentially contradict Horsey’s view of Pitcairn as a society whose innocence and integrity is best guaranteed by benign, if distant, British rule. Where there is an anti-authoritarian sting in the tail of the story, it is directed at the islanders’ much-vaunted piety rather than any structure of state power. As a political parable, its commitments are queerly unpolitical.

“Such,” writes Twain, “is the history of Pitcairn’s ‘doubtful acquisition’.”



Wrangel Island: As If Such A Thing Were Worth Anyone’s While, Except a Polar Bear

The story of Wrangel Island is very different from that of Pitcairn. Essentially, nothing much happens: a claim has been made to the Island by the USA; the CO consider whether they might have any pre-existing claim to the island on behalf of the British Empire; they quite sensibly decide that they have little interest in who makes claims to islands which are uninhabitable, more or less inaccessible, and far from any area in which they have much interest in projecting naval power. But if nothing else, the bureaucratic encounter with Wrangel provides a counterpoint to that with Pitcairn. In both cases, the same cast of CO staff faced issues of territoriality, sovereignty, remoteness and geostrategy, and come up with very different answers; in both cases, the encounter takes place in a larger cultural context in which remoteness itself, and how it is construed, is central to how those issues are thought about.

Briefly, in August 1881, a party from the US Revenue Cutter Corwin arrived at Wrangel Island. Naming it ‘New Columbia’, they claimed it for the USA. Neither the name nor the territorial claim would stick. Nonetheless, the US government notified the British, and towards the end of November the Admiralty informed the Colonial Office of what had transpired.

The despatch they sent contained the Admiralty’s own briefing on Wrangel, and an updated chart of the island and its immediate neighbourhood. To briefing gives a strong impression of the piecemeal way that the topography and geopolitical dispensations of the Arctic came into focus.

The first intimation to geographers of the land now known as Wrangell Land, was on the authority of the Russian Explorer, Baron von Wrangell, who in 1823, while exploring the Arctic shores of Eastern Siberia, was told by a Native chief, that on a clear summer’s day, snow covered mountains were observed (to the north) from Cape Jakan, a head land in long: 177 E.

In August 1849 Captain Kellett in HMS Herald being then engaged – by way of Behring Strait – in the search for Sir John Franklin’s expedition discovered a lofty and almost inaccessible island in lat: 71.20 N – long 175.30 W. (the Herald island of the Charts). At the same time, beyond this Island to the West and North and extensive high land was seen. This new land, which was not very far distant from the mountainous region recorded by Wrangell, as seen from Cape Jaken, received the name of Kellett’s Land.

In August 1867 – the season being very favourable, some American whaling ships gained the neighbourhood of these lands – one of the Captains (Long, of the ship Nile), traced continuous land from 70.46 N and 178.30 E running Eastward to 178.51 W.

He considered it impossible to tell how far the land from the last position (Cape Hawaii) extended northwards, as ranges of mountains extended as far as the eye could see; but that he had learnt from another Whaling Captain (Blevin, of the ship Nautilus) that he (Blevin) saw land NW of Herald island, as far North as Latitude 72. Captain Long named the land he had traced (it appears he never got closer to it than 15 miles) ‘Wrangell Land’ as an appropriate tribute to the memory of the Russian Explorer.

The Charts thus show two names for what apparently is one continuous land, or group of large islands, Wrangell Land and Kellett Land.[4]

Kellett and Blevin’s original observations are largely accurate, although they tend to slightly overestimate Wrangel’s extent; this passage sets out rather elegantly both how the new land was boxed in – fixed within bounds of latitude and longitude – and how knowledge of what was within those bounds was kept carefully provisional until further evidence was given. It also gives a nice sense of how the business of Arctic exploration and mapping proceeded. Unlike the Antarctic, whose unique isolation and inaccessibility were met at the end of the century with a combination of technology, political will and ideological fervour which sparked the relatively short heroic age of exploration, geographical knowledge of the Arctic had a long pedigree which encompassed the geographical knowledges of indigenous peoples, the penetration of resource extraction industries – most notably whaling, sealing and fur trading – and a rather longer history of European exploration dating back to Davis, Frobisher and the Muscovy Company.


Sketch chart of Wrangel from Log Book of the USS Rodgers (1881); modern nature reserve map of Wrangel and Herald Islands.

(Above) Sketch chart of Wrangel from Log Book of the USS Rodgers (1881); (below)modern nature reserve map of Wrangel and Herald Islands.


The Corvin, in fact, was on a search – for the US ship Jeannette, apparently lost the year before, and for two missing whalers. As with many of the period’s arctic expeditions, this search mission seems to have essentially been a convenient rationale (and a source of funding and media attention) for what was essentially an explorational voyage: this particular one was attended by John Muir, the famous American naturalist and conservationist. A published narrative by one of the doctors on board recounts the sighting of Wrangel from Herald Island, and the first documented landing. It is an evocative document of how late nineteenth Europeans and North Americans viewed the Arctic – as a territory of chaos, scarcity and ruin, a rich field for scientific enquiry but in human terms a terra nullius. “The view revealed from the top of [Herald] island”, he writes, “was a veritable apocalypse”.  After Herald Island, the party makes landfall on Wrangel, and though much of the narrative is taken up with observations and cataloguing of wildlife species:

On the beach, composed of black slaty shingle, we found the skeleton of a whale from which the baleen was absent; also a quantity of driftwood, some of it twelve inches in diameter; a wooden wedge; a barrel-stave; a piece of a boat’s spar and a fragment of a biscuit-box.”[5]


Mammoth tusk on Wrangel (courtesy of Wikipedia).

Mammoth tusk on Wrangel (courtesy of Wikipedia).

In their minutes, the CO reveal themselves to be singularly unconcerned by America’s claim to Wrangel. “I should think,” writes Edmund Burke Pennell, Parliamentary Clerk, “the United States are welcome to Wrangel Island.” There is some discussion of charts, and it is moved to send Ottawa an updated copy: the issue is relegated to one purely of having up-to-date information on navigation and the disposition of a sovereignty which, one gets the impression, is conceived of anyway as purely notional. The final comment is from Hicks Beach, and reads, with impatience and an uncharacteristic levity:

We have obviously nothing to do with Wrangel Island. The only people that could complain of the annexation by the US are the Russians, if such a thing were worth anyone’s while except a Polar bear, to trouble himself about.”

In this case, there was no appetite for geostrategic competition: nothing was felt to be at stake; existing technologies and geostrategic dispositions placed Wrangel far from any immediate inter-imperial competition; the only local resources worth having were whale oil and navigational data, both of which were easily collectable in seas in which territorial sovereignty was effectively, at this point, understood to be a fiction. While Pitcairn, the argument goes, can only preserve its technologically and politically undeveloped society from unknown threats (internal and external) through the imposition of hard technology (warships) and the juridical techniques of statehood, neither are yet of any use in the Arctic. Claims to sovereignty could only really be made speculatively, against a future in which the means to back them up, or the circumstances in which they’d be worth asserting, might arise. The new data is to be disseminated to the relevant Colonial governments, where it will lie in wait until it becomes useful; otherwise, the island and its territorial status can be more or less forgotten.




The relative trajectories of Pitcairn and Wrangel, in terms of global history, constitute almost a reversal of the calculations behind the CO’s decisions in 1878 and 1881. Pitcairn, a potential front line of inter-imperial competition and a psychologically important cultural artefact, would perhaps never loom so largely in the administrative or cultural mind again; Wrangel, albeit quietly, has become deeply implicated in new geographies of geostrategy, ecology, and the Anthropocene.

Pitcairn continued much as it always had. There were a few experiments in modes of governance – a temporary parliament at the turn of the century saw an attempted separation of judicial and administrative powers, but the system of a unitary executive lodged in the Chief Magistrate was felt to work best. Laws were made to prevent the settling of foreigners, and then relaxed, although incomers were largely quite carefully vetted; the social fabric, always strained by Pitcairn society’s tiny size and extreme isolation, held together, more or less. The island became a formal British Colony in the 1930s. The sexual abuse trials that marred its reputation since 2004have been amply documented elsewhere; as ever, that island overdetermination has been made to work overtime in attempting to draw meaning from the trials, the cultural and ethical conflicts they represented, and how they might be read within the history of colonialism and postcolonialism. It is interesting to note, however, that the same anxieties about sovereignty and legal constitution that worried the CO in 1878 began to manifest during the upheaval. The initial defence argument took the line that, since the island did not fall under British criminal law, the court set up on the island held no jurisdiction; and throughout the trials the legitimacy of the court fell under various kinds of questioning (none of them successful).

Adamstown, capital of Pitcairn (photo courtesy of flickr)

Adamstown, capital of Pitcairn (photo courtesy of flickr)


Wrangel Island was formally claimed by the Russians in 1916, with no apparent protest from any other power. The heroic age of Arctic exploration left its usual residue of detritus and graves: a party of stranded explorers from the 1913-16 Canadian Arctic Expedition generated some exceptionally grim stories of starvation, madness and death, and a castaway incident in the 1920s generated considerable interest. But while Pitcairn’s geostrategic importance waned, Wrangel’s rose: as a far-north outpost of the Soviet Union it found itself on the front line of the Cold War balance of terror, and military installations made it important enough to 1950s war planners at the Pentagon to make it a nuclear target. At present it is a nature reserve, inhabited seasonally by Chukchi fishermen and year-round by a small team of conservationists. But as sea ice retreats, the opening up of the Arctic Ocean places Wrangel dead in the middle of what may soon become a major commercial seaway. As the Arctic becomes a space in which concepts of sovereignty and territory are being contested and redefined – with not only its land at stake but its undersea ridges and continental shelves, any stretch of seabed which might yield access to the hydrocarbon reserves beneath – Wrangel finds itself again on the front line between expansionist territorial powers facing off over space, resources, and influence. It is also, of course, on the front line of the Anthropocene: as a strategic outpost in the first oceanic region to have both its geopolitics and its ecosystems radically remade by climate change, and as a stretch of tundra whose underlying permafrost contains not only mammoth bones but millions of tonnes of methane, awaiting the thaw.

Peter Mitchell



[1] Colonial Office: New South Wales Despatches, National Archives CO 201/585-6.

[2] The Spectator (London), December 14, 1878; p. 9.

[3] The Englishwoman’s Review (London), December 14, 1878; p. 558; issue LXVIII.

[4] Colonial Office Canada Despatches, National Archive CO 42/758.

[5] Irving C. Rosse, ‘The First Landing on Wrangel Island, with some Remarks on the Northern Inhabitants’, Journal of the American Geographical Socety of New York, Vol. 15 (1883), pp. 163-214.

Posted in 1879, Colonial Office, Islands in History

Civilizing Empire?: Race, criminal justice, and how the Colonial Office reconciled the violence of colonial government

Previous blogs have touched upon the ways in which the Imperial government in London tied together geographically and governmentally disparate colonies into a relatively cohesive entity known as the British Empire. We have likewise discussed some of the activities of empire – communications technology, steam transport, conservation and geological surveys – that together, tied in very closely with the notion of the British Empire as a modern, ‘civilizing’ body. This self-image was projected from the centre no more profoundly than in the latter nineteenth century. The consolidation of Britain’s political presence overseas, the confederation of Canada, and the unification of South Africa were driven by a number of factors, including inter-Imperial rivalry, but were likewise fraught with a sense of the Empire’s righteousness, as though it were Britain’s moral imperative to conquer the globe.

Today’s blog, however, will touch upon the dissonance between the image of Empire projected from the metropole that drove imperial policy, and the realities of empire that brought those policies to fruition in the colonies. Here, I will explore a two documents that point toward this separation, governmentally and ideologically. The first, from Mauritius, encapsulates the ideological discrepancies between how the practice of empire was conceived from the colonies and from the centre, while the second, from the Cape Colony, indicates a similar distinction within the practice of government and the art of war. As the tone of racism and violence that underpinned imperial expansion for centuries became more pronounced, we see evidence of conflict between the Colonial Office and the colonies as they debate whether the ‘ends justify the means’ and officials in London repeatedly remark that, ‘this is not how things in the British Empire are done.’ Together, these documents portray an ideological dissonance: an Empire torn between its self-imagined moral authority and its violent reality.


Security, Criminality, and Race in Mauritius
Mauritius is an interesting case study. People of colour were the majority population, with many of them Indian indentured labourers. Colonial officials in such colonies often expressed anxiety at being outnumbered by people of colour, and Mauritius was no exception. In late-1857, during the height of the Indian Uprising, security was a clear concern. As revealed in an earlier blog, in that case the colonial government sought to control the Indian population through the implementation of a system of compulsory education. By 1879, however, it appears that the government had turned away from regulatory methods of social control and towards force. In 1879, it becomes readily apparent that, at its highest levels, the colonial government of Mauritius is imbued with a deeply embedded distrust of the island’s majority population.

The documents under consideration are a letter from the Acting Governor of Mauritius, F. Napier Broome, to the Port Louis Prison Committee, asking their opinion ‘whether the general practice of the more civilised countries, namely the private in lieu of the public execution of the sentence of death, might not with advantage be introduced into the Colony.’[1] While the subject under consideration is whether capital punishment practices ought to be amended to align with those undertaken in England, to offer a ‘more decent’ mode of execution, the Prison Committee instead offers a report on the various merits of reinstating execution by beheading (rather than the standard practice of hanging that was used in both the colonies and at home at this time).

The initial argument is presented that ‘the population of Mauritius is a very mixed one, unlike that of India or Ceylon’ with the Procureur General then elaborating that the crimes in Mauritius ‘are those of marked violence and they point to the peculiarities of Indian character.’[2]

The Procureur General then notes that ‘the Indian is certainly not afraid of death,’ explaining ‘I do not attribute this indifference to any exceptional courage or want of nervous power on the part of the Indian, but rather to the disbelief which he feels in the form of punishment. He is prepared to die, provided that his identity is not destroyed by any form of mutilation.’[3] This argument is presented to justify his conclusion that the issue of a public or private execution is irrelevant, and his concurrence in the Chief Medical Officer’s assessment that beheading is a punishment ‘more befitting’ the Indian population. It certainly indicates the kind of racism that permeated colonial governance, as well as the forms of violence against non-European populations deemed acceptable by colonial administrations. The opinions presented here by the Procureur General were echoed by the Chief Medical Officer, Head of the Police Department, and a Magistrate.

The Minutes of the Colonial Office, presented upon receiving this Report, present a very different opinion. They immediately dismiss the proposal to reinstate beheading as barbaric and merely a long-forgotten relic of French rule in Mauritius, not even taking the idea under serious consideration. Sir Robert George Wyndham Herbert, Permanent Under Secretary of State, in fact, suggests that all the colonial executions should be conducted on the English system, within the confines of the jail. Sir Michael Hicks Beach, Secretary of State for the Colonies, likewise agreed, expressing what was to him an obvious opinion that, as part of the wider British Empire, all the colonies ought to adhere to the ‘civilised’ example set by the Home Government in England.


Representative Autonomy and the Art of Colonial Warfare
The case from the Cape Colony may seem not to relate to that from Mauritius just discussed. However, it points to a similar disconnect between the Home and Colonial Governments, both with regard to the prerogatives held by the imperial representative, and to the attitudes regarding non-European communities. In his initial despatch, Governor Sir Bartle Frere, Governor of the Cape Colony, defends his issuing of an ultimatum, and the use of force against the Zulus, without previously receiving approval from the Home Government. The Colonial Office’s reply is revealing, showing that in fact the imperial government in London was not aware of the military initiative until it was already underway. This document not only calls into question any popular assumption that the Anglo-Zulu War was directed and approved from London; it also sheds light on the uncertainty that still prevailed as late as 1879, regarding the power wielded by colonial governments.

High Commissioner Sir Bartle Frere

High Commissioner Sir Bartle Frere

The questions at the core of this debate are whether the Governor had the power to authorise a significant military intervention without sanction from London, and whether there were any circumstances which made such action immediately necessary. The Governor argues that “it would have been useless to expect to wait the two months for a reply from Her Majesty’s Government, without some fresh manifestation of Zulu impatience or without an outbreak of discontent in the Transvaal or elsewhere.” He then constructs an argument, listing a series of justifications that are systematically dismantled in the reply from the Colonial Office.

It is firstly abundantly clear that the Governor absolutely did not have permission from London to engage the colony in war. One of the Undersecretaries of State comments upon the Governor’s despatch, “There does not appear to be anything in it to relieve Sir B. Frere from the crime administered to him on the 19th of March for committing the country to war without the sanction of Her Majesty’s Government.” In this statement it is made evident that not only was the Colonial Office unaware of Sir Bartle Frere’s machinations, but that they disapprove and that his assumption of this prerogative is tantamount to criminal.

What follows is an attempt to understand the true reasons behind the conflict, suggesting that those offered by the Governor may not be entirely truthful. The Minute proceeds thus, in reference to the aforementioned hypothetical “outbreak of discontent in the Transvaal”:

It is quite clear from what follows that the passage underlined refers to an outbreak of Boer discontent; and the passage will give strength to the allegation made by some that this war has been undertaken to please the Boers – a charge which would go far to discredit the policy of having an annexed Transvaal.

Frere then defends the urgency of the conflict, suggesting that the Zulus were on the brink of invasion, placing colonists settled along the banks of the Tugela River at great risk. However, in the course of this argument he also suggests that during the rainy months the Tugela “is in such a state as to make it dangerous for any Zulu force to cross it for raiding purposes between October and March.” This passage was taken by the Colonial Office, however, to prove the opposite of what Frere had intended, that there was no need to begin the military engagement so hurriedly. They suggest that if the Tugela was unpassable until March, then it would have served as a barrier to any kind of Zulu invasion; Frere could therefore have waited until March, which would have offered more than enough time for communication with the Home Government.

Moreover, the Colonial Office rebuts Frere’s claim that Cetshwayo and the Zulus were determined to invade Natal this year, pointing to the ultimatum issued against Cetshwayo as evidence. The Colonial Office determines that if such was the case, then the invasion of Zulu country would have been a “justifiable act of self-preservation” and there would have been no just reason to send an ultimatum. This can be related back to previous correspondence concerning the ultimatum, which held it and a preceding land award as directly responsible for the ensuing conflict. In reference to the land award, which gave “the Zulus nominal sovereignty of the country” and gave “the country itself to 80 or 90 Boers,” Edward Fairfield, a member of staff at the Colonial Office, likened it to “giving the shells to the Zulus and the oysters to the Boers.” Fairfield further proposes that by following the Award with the ultimatum – which required the disbandment of the Zulu army and fundamental changes to the Zulu marriage system – it ensured that the war was virtually inevitable.[4] Such comments elicit the impression that the Colonial Office did not believe the war to be the inevitable result of Zulu aggression, as indicated by Frere, and rather the deliberate consequence of colonial provocation.

The minute concludes that “Sir B. Frere might have put the matter before the Government in time to have obtained their assent to his advancing into Zululand in January, and yet have left it open to them to veto the measure in time.”


These two cases provide a glimpse into the culture of imperial governance in 1879, shedding light on the difficulties faced by the Colonial Office in maintaining an ideologically and governmentally cohesive empire.

The debate surrounding the Zulu ultimatum calls into question the fluidity of communications between the Cape and London. It suggests that the delay effected by use of the steam postal service was, if not a barrier to communication itself, at least a useful excuse for exercising executive power from the colony without the need of approval from London. It likewise sheds new light on the sense of urgency expressed by the Colonial Office regarding the construction on the Great Sea Telegraph, casting it into the context of a dispute regarding the extent of the Governor’s authority in the Cape Colony.

Meanwhile, the case presented by the Mauritius petition sheds light on the administrative culture in the colony. It likewise develops farther-reaching relevance as opinions such as those presented by the Prison Committee impacted upon the Major General’s willingness to send troops to reinforce those fighting the Zulus in the Cape Colony and Natal. Despite the overall peaceful state of the colony, he refers to the ‘criminal tendencies of the lower classes of the population’ and that ‘many…are committing murders and robberies in all directions.’[5] In such conditions, troops could not be spared for the imperial enterprise as a whole.

Such opinions had a clear and decided impact on the Colonial Office’s ability to mobilise its empire. In contrast to the example posed by the Indian Uprising in 1857, colonies such as Mauritius that had previously willingly supplied troops to other colonies as required, were hesitant to do so in 1879. Had a culture shift occurred, resulting in some colonies’ turn away from the Home Government and the British Empire as a whole, and toward preserving their own administrative autonomy and security?

Kate Boehme


[1] National Archives, Kew. Mauritius Despatches 1 Jan-31 Mar 1879, No. 170, F. Napier Broome to Sir Michael Hicks Beach, (31 March, 1879).
[2] National Archives. Mauritius Despatches 1 Jan-31 Mar 1879, Prison Committee, “Minute of the Public Execution of Criminals,” (March 1879).
[3] Ibid.
[4] National Archives. Cape Despatches 1 Jan – 30 April 1879, No. 3217, “Confidential,” (26 Jan, 1879).
[5] National Archives. Mauritius Despatches 1 Jan-31 Mar 1879, No. 129, F. Napier Broome to Sir Michael Hicks Beach, (9 March, 1879).

Posted in 1879, Colonial Office, Islands in History, Violence & Conflict

Fantasies of the Past, Fantasies of the Future: George Birdwood, Clements Markham, and how the shape of your archive determines the reach of your power

One of the things we’re trying to get a sense of in this project is governmentality as something ‘more-than-human’; a close-grained understanding of how power moves, and the colonial state constitutes itself, through the networks, technologies and instruments of imperial rule. A better word for these things – the materials, so to speak, of power – might be the technics of rule. These technics include paper, bodies, buildings, files, despatches, forms, archives, ships, railways, telegraphs, lighthouses, and weaponry; they also include networks of communication and vectors of force, the cultures and discourses of bureaucracy and scholarship, the practices by which governing elites were educated and acculturated as governing classes, and the epistemological structures – systems of ordering and classification, methods of study and learning, procedures of enquiry and structures of understanding – which interpreted, translated, and produced the subjects of imperial rule.

In studying our three snapshots – 1838, 1857, and 1879 – we’re hoping to get a rough sense of how these technics changed over time. But our focus is often on the more obviously instrumental. Richmond Barbour, in a wonderfully useful phrase, proposes the concept of a ‘cultural logistics’.[1] Admittedly, he’s using it in a slightly narrower context: the phrase comes from his work on the early documentary culture of the East India Company, and the ways in which the epistolary forms of the early 17th century were adapted into a system by which to run a global corporation at unprecedented scales of distance and time. In our case, the technologies (both documentary and ‘hard’) are more complex, and the trading company has become a huge territorial empire, but Barbour’s basic point stands: the concept of a cultural logistics gives us a useful shorthand for conceptualizing how administrative systems are produced from a dialectical relationship between form and content, technology and culture, meaning and structure.

This week, I’d like to take a look at two figures in the India Office who illuminate something of how this dialectic worked, how the machinery of imperial government was tied into the institutional structures and ideologies of imperial knowledge, and how both logistics and scholarship could be enlisted in conflict between different forms of imperialism.

George Christopher Molesworth Birdwood (1832-1917) and Clements Robert Markham (1830-1916) almost coincide in their lifespans, but in their relations to the India Office and the Imperial project at large they represented, in their idiosyncratic ways, very different generations. Their careers illustrate the importance, in understanding imperial networks, of David Lambert and Alan Lester’s concept of ‘imperial careering’ – they move, in their complex trajectories, between widely varying contexts, locales and places of work; between the most remote (read: unconnected) parts of the world and the imperial centre; between knowledge practices and disciplines; between the corridors of government, the fields of imperial ‘action’ in colonial and non-colonial spaces, and the institutions of learning, both formal and less so, where knowledge and disciplines were made and contested.[2]

In 1858, the East India Company was formally dissolved and replaced by the India Office. The Office was run by a parliamentary secretary of state and a permanent undersecretary: there was also a Council of India, who were supposed to give assent to all legislation. This was in a way a sop to the old Company hands, and meant to preserve some sense of the old corporate ethic, but under successive undersecretaries its power was increasingly eroded, and it became essentially a rubber-stamp committee that was often circumvented.

By 1879, too, the India Office had moved into its new premises in Whitehall, which is now the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The building is fascinating in itself – its baroque high imperialist aesthetic, pursued through a dizzying neoclassical gigantism, expresses an emergent imperial ideology which is at once syncretic and triumphantly appropriative, so that the figures of Indian rivers and Hindu deities are carved within Romanesque arches and the materials of the colonized culture re-presented as cod-medieval ceiling frescoes.

George William Scott’s India Office (1866); contemporary view and Grand Durbar Court


George William Scott’s India Office (1866); contemporary view and Grand Durbar Court

Within the India Office, as everywhere else, rule was becoming centralized, professionalized and technologized: the number of departments dealing with different subjects proliferated, and the flows of paper between departments, and between the IO and other government agencies, became increasingly complex. In the days before telegraphs, the presidencies in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras had exercised a degree of autonomy in their application of policy, largely because London had no choice in the matter, although the Court and Directors spent a good deal of time remonstrating with them about it. The new communication technologies, and the multiplier effects of speed and scale of correspondence, had upset this arrangements. Carefully-structured periodical despatches gave way to more various, less rigidly organized and prioritized information, and the burden of making sense of intelligence across all scales began to shift increasingly towards London; at the same time, the speed with which communication could occur gave free rein to the naturally centripetal tendencies of an ever-more-rationalised bureaucracy. The distribution of power and agency through the web of empire focused increasingly on London, as London became more able to make its presence felt at all points in the network.

These developments were, of course, part of a global trend in practices of governmentality. But in the India Office, as with the case of the Council of India, they represented a generational rupture and a major ideological reorientation.

To George Birdwood, they were in many senses a betrayal. Birdwood’s life placed him, culturally, within the culture of the ‘old India hands’ who, by the 1870s, were being superseded in the India Office by a newer, more bureaucratic class. Like most of them, he had spent much of his early life in India: born to a longstanding Company family in Karnataka, he attended public school and university in the UK and returned to India to serve as a medical doctor. After serving in the Indian Navy and becoming a professor of medicine and botany at Bombay – a city whose civic life under the East India Company he’d spend much of his subsequent life eulogizing – he returned to London as an expert on Indian languages and material culture. He spent the rest of his life working at the India office, and writing and lecturing widely, with increasing eccentricity and obstreperousness, on Indian matters.

Sir George Birdwood, early 20th Century

Sir George Birdwood, early 20th Century

Birdwood’s job in the India Office began in 1868 when the office first moved into Gilbert Scott’s new building. He was attached to the Revenue and Statistical Department, but also named Keeper of the Museum. The old East India House had had a museum and a scholarly library since the late seventeenth century. However, these were being dispersed: the library had been moved to Cannon Row, where the old Board of Control offices were, and the contents of the Museum had been crammed into some small rooms on the third floor of the India Office. Birdwood’s job as Keeper of the Museum was in effect to destroy the museum, and disperse its contents to the British Museum and South Kensington, where many of its artefacts – including Tipu Sultan’s famous tiger – ended up forming the core collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Birdwood didn’t want this to happen: along with many of the old Company hands, he began to invest in an increasingly well-articulated nostalgia for Company rule, which he envisaged as being more personal, less bureaucratized, and more invested in India itself as a field for human and cultural enquiry. These men were from a culture which valorized the ability to speak South Asian languages and emphasized the value of having spent decades in country: to them, separating scholarship from government betrayed an ideal of colonial rule, and an ethic of a colonial governing caste, to which they’d devoted their lives.


In 1875, with the museum being dispersed, Birdwood’s next move was to turn the paper records of administration themselves into antiquarian artefacts. He rather cleverly stage-managed the discovery of a box of old charters from the 17th century, and set up a new record-room with the charters in the middle of it, as objects of antiquarian veneration. He even suggested that one particular document – a roll of subscribers from 1699 – be installed under glass in the Council Room, perhaps in an attempt to remind the administrators of India of their project’s origins in the bourgeois mercantile elite of the old City of London.

I would also venture to suggest that the parchments should be carefully restored, and exhibited in this Office. I would not have them sent to the Museums. They are not idle curiosities to be toyed about in museums, but State Archives which should be reverently kept in the India Office itself: and after restoration should be rolled up, and put away in a glass cabinet in the Council Room. The roll of the original Subscribers of the £2,000,000 stock which contains the names of nearly the whole of the well to-do middle class people of England a century ago, should never again pass out of sight.[3]

Birdwood’s move, in effect, was to take the artefacts of the documentary technology of an earlier regime of global governance, and enshrine them, for display and veneration, in a semi-sacralised space. Paperwork itself would be enlisted in the formation of a kind of reverential historiography of empire which was designed to call the imperial project back to its heroic origins. If this wasn’t an affair which particularly concerned the present-day administration of the empire, Birdwood didn’t care: his whole point was to make sure that, while making the decisions of governance, the materials of an older and implicitly greater age were present and visible. He worked within the cultures of antiquarianism and Orientalist scholarship which he had acquired from his museum work and connections at the Royal Asiatic Society, and was intent on applying this scholarship – already being superseded by new curatorial practices and new Orientalisms – to the task of maintaining some kind of moral guardianship over the empire.

At the same time, Clements Robert Markham was consolidating the new Geographical Department.

Clements R. Markham c.1912. Note the framed drawing of the cinchona plant and the effigy of a polar explorer drawing a sledge, a memento of the 1901-4 British Antarctic Expedition led by Captain Scott.

Clements R. Markham c.1912. Note the framed drawing of the cinchona plant and the effigy of a polar explorer drawing a sledge, a memento of the 1901-4 British Antarctic Expedition led by Captain Scott.

Markham was one of the pre-eminent characters of what Felix Driver has usefully termed “geography militant”. His biography is too spectacularly various to condense here – it’s high time, in fact, that someone took him on as the subject for a book – but he takes Lambert and Lester’s ‘imperial careering’ to a hyperkinetic extreme. He began as a navy midshipman, spending time in the Arctic on one of the earliest Franklin search expeditions, and in Andean Latin America’, where he learned Spanish and Quechua, producing a (highly questionable) first English translation of the drama Ollantay. He was employed in various clerkly roles in the East India Company and India Office, but these were quickly overtaken by his portfolio career as a prolific writer and editor of early modern voyages, fixer of expeditions and evangelist of applying Humboldtian world geography to the practice of empire. Amongst other adventures, he proposed and carried out the expedition to transplant cinchona trees from Andean Ecuador to India (thus providing a supply of quinine, the only known prophylactic against malaria, for European use in the Subcontinent); accompanied the punitive 1867-8 expedition into Abyssinia as a “field geographer”, complete with a full set of instruments and team of assistants; and got sacked from the India Office for sailing to the Arctic on a whim without bothering to request leave. He spent the latter part of his life as a grandee of the Royal Geographical Society, during which time, amongst other things, he alienated many of his colleagues with the grandiosity and tactlessness, produced a body of scholarship on the history of exploration which was as voluminous as it was shoddily executed, and was the driving force behind the British Antarctic Expeditions which culminated in the loss of Captain Scott. (In fact, Scott made him godfather to his son, later Admiral Peter Markham Scott. Markham’s last diary entry, in 1916, relates him walking around his garden with the fatherless young boy. A few days later he set his bed alight while reading and died from shock.)

His work in the India Office, though short, was of a piece with the energy, improvisation and ambition of the rest of his career. Working across the Political and Secret, Revenue and Public Works Departments during the India Office’s early years, he was continually frustrated by the disorder of the bureaucracy: papers did not circulate efficiently enough for his liking, and most troublingly, the relevant records were often difficult to call up. The archives, he wrote, “were lost or left to rot, and even the correspondence books were destroyed. Many previous documents were sold as waste paper, other were purloined or torn to pieces.”[4] In particular, he noted that maps, surveys and statistics were hard to come by. He became convinced that there should be a central repository of geographical information and that he should be the man to head it up; and in 1867, when the IO moved into its new premises, he was invited to try it. Over the next two years, he established his new department as an exchange/repository of all the information that could be classified as ‘geographical’ – reports, maps, plans and charts. This involved not only maps of the current state of India, but all maps, charts and reports going back to the East India Company’s foundation.

This is where Markham’s work intersects with Birdwood’s. Through his work in the Royal Geographical Society, Markham was involved in the Hakluyt Society, the grouping set up in the 1840s to recover and publish the narratives of early modern exploration and conquest. Some of the ships’ logbooks and accounts of early modern voyages to the East Indies which he found in the archives made their way into the Hakluyt Society’s publications via Markham’s hasty editing: essentially, they were being enlisted into the same kind of reverential narratives that Birdwood was advancing, conscripting early modern seafarers and merchants into the long and triumphant arc of empire.

But Markham’s most spectacular intervention was entirely forward-looking. In 1875, he submitted a memorandum on ‘Proposals for the Organization and Conduct of the Statistical Work of the India Office’. It’s a remarkable document. In it, Markham makes it clear that he wants to go beyond a mere archive of maps, surveys and reports. Rather, he envisages a new Geographical Department that’s not so much a physical space as it is an enormous, infinitely combinable database of imperial data.

The first step, he writes, is to regularize the collection of data in the colonial field: all reports, maps, and statistics must be standardized and sent back to the Geographical department according to strict protocols. After this, the data must be rendered into usable knowledge. Being able to do this depends upon its being quickly locatable and infinitely recombinable; and being able to recombine it in instantly comprehensible form depends upon finding the right way to classify things:


Once this magical taxonomic key has been located, according to Markham – once information is subjected to the perfect regime of ordering, in which it can be located, plucked from place and cross-referenced – then India can be known, simultaneously and completely:


Much of the memorandum is taken up with this perfect taxonomy, as Markham sees it: extensive tables classifying subject and sub-subjects, models of tables in which to collect date for transmission from the field, and even a plan for a records room in which the department’s collections would be arranged for maximum accessibility.



Plan for the records room of the reorganized geographical department; one of the cataloguing forms for recording data, classified by Markham’s complex taxonomy; part of that taxonomy in full, laid out in two of Markham’s subdivisions. (All from IOR L/R/4/29, ‘Memorandum of Proposals for the Organisation and Conduct [etc]’)

Plan for the records room of the reorganized geographical department; one of the cataloguing forms for recording data, classified by Markham’s complex taxonomy; part of that taxonomy in full, laid out in two of Markham’s subdivisions. (All from IOR L/R/4/29, ‘Memorandum of Proposals for the Organisation and Conduct [etc]’)

Markham’s memo is a remarkable document, in that it articulates what’s been identified as an emergent fantasy at the time: a totalizing and synoptic archive of imperial knowledge. Markham argues that, could the multifarious data of British India only be correctly taxonomised and arranged in the correct order, and could the systems by which data was gathered only be calibrated correctly, then it would be possible to know, at any moment, exactly what was happening.

It’s a fantasy of surveillance and power, obviously, but it’s also a fantasy of being able to transcend the drag that all systems exert on information. By breaking down information into  its smallest possible constituents according to a meticulously worked-out schema, you make it possible to send and store it with the greatest possible efficiency, and the smallest possible attrition. Then, using the same schema, you can reconstruct it as knowledge. “Within ten minutes”, as Markham writes, you can know, from your office in London, exactly what’s happening in India: the width of every canal, the fluctuating price of every commodity, the revenue to be gained from any plot of land, the rainfall in any district. Colonial knowledge is rendered instantaneous and simultaneous, happening genuinely everywhere and all at once, and gathered into one master archive in the imperial centre.

Thought of in this way, Markham’s plan almost anticipates cybernetics. It’s certainly an example of a fantasy that, as Thomas Richards identifies in his influential book The Imperial Archive, would come to animate the Anglophone cultural imagination from the end of the century onwards: that of a repository of knowledge that would perfectly mirror the world and thus enable complete mastery of it – an empire, if you like, of information.

Markham’s fantasy never came to pass. Some of his suggested classifications came in useful, and the organization and cataloguing of the archives in general continued apace. Many of the earlier materials he dug up became subjects of Hakluyt Society volumes, becoming thereby raw material for the project of veneration that Birdwood and Markham were both, to various degrees, engaged in.

Both these men, it’s fair to say, engaged in fictions: one a fiction of a past and the other a fiction of a future. Birdwood’s project of East India Company nostalgism may not seem, from our vantage point, to have been too successful, but the ways in which we think about empire now aren’t far off the kinds of narratives which he helped to rise to prominence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century: just ask Michael Gove. He was also one of the prime movers in making the India Office Records, one of the two primary archives for our project, and still the major resource for studying the history of the Company, the India Office, and, to a large extent, the whole British presence in the Indian Ocean and beyond from 1599 to 1947. When you go into the British Library and read the letters or journals of the early modern navigators, what you’re reading is mediated by his ideologies of colonialism and empire.

Markham’s most ambitious project didn’t lead far, but it’s a familiar one in a world grappling with an overflow of information whose instantaneity and volume open up unprecedented potential for the global circulation of knowledge. This plenitude of information offers liberatory as well as repressive potentials: for either purpose, the problem is to tame and channel it, to fashion actionable knowledge out of a morass of data. Markham might recognize Google: he’d also want to make it the sole preserve of the British imperial government. Just as Birdwood believed in history as a tool for the legitimation of empire – his own particular version of empire, yes, but empire all the same – Markham devoted his life to the advancement of the discipline of geography and its being harnessed, with all the knowledge it produced, in the service of imperial power.

So where, finally, can studying figures like Birdwood and Markham lead us? It’s a pretty open question. The men who administered the empire at its nominal centre are (quite beyond their intrinsic interest) deserving of renewed attention for a few reasons. Firstly, there’s the ‘imperial careering’ aspect: as Lambert and Lester so astutely point out, following people through the structures of colonialism allows us to see the lateral connections, comparisons and contiguities between contexts we might otherwise think of as being separate. Secondly, the history of imperial knowledge in the nineteenth century is, quite rightly, a growing field: studies of imperial nature, science and geography have outlined the intimate connection between the history of disciplines and the history of colonial power.[5] Although biographical studies have been made of significant figures such as J.A. Froude and Carlyle, and the relationship between historical time and late Victorian imperialism has been tentatively explored, few major works have yet been produced on the relationship between empire and historiography in this period.[6] Third, there is a significant social history to be written about the elite white men who ran the British empire in the nineteenth century; who moved, as Birdwood and Markham did, between office, museum, library, learned society, gentleman’s club and colony. The range of their investments, their intellectual, psychological and sexual worlds, remain to be plumbed. Given the richness of the personal and institutional archives available, this elite might even make a collective subject for a historical ethnography on the pattern of Andreas Glaeser’s study of the Stasi, or Katherine Verdery’s of the Romanian Securitate: all of them groups of men acculturated in particular ways, inducted into a particular habitus, and entrusted with an ideological mission whose precise definition was often elusive, but whose end result was always, in some way, the commission of systemic violence.[7] Fourth, and finally, this kind of study brings us back to the idea of a ‘cultural logistics’ which I mentioned at the beginning of this article: it reminds us to what extent the cultures and forms of imperial government were determined by each other. In focusing on the ‘more-than-human’ aspects of imperial governmentality, we’re not trying to exclude the human: rather, the more-than-human approach should give us a richer appreciation of the ways in which human and nonhuman action produces combined agency, and precisely how humans effect power through technology and the material world. And I’d suggest that biography, more than most modes of history-writing, might be able to render in full the nuance, granularity and narrative complexity of how this relationship takes shape.


— Peter Mitchell

[1] The phrase is from Barbour’s Before Orientalism: London’s Theatre of the East, 1572-1626, but perhaps a fuller application of it – and a brilliantly close reading of an early modern cultural logistics – can be found in his book of early East India Company voyages, The Third Voyage Journals: Writing and Performance in the London East India Company, 1607-1610.

[2] David Lambert and Alan Lester, Colonial Lives Across the British Empire: Imperial Careering in the Long Nineteenth Century (CUP, 2006).

[3] George Birdwood, memorandum on the ‘Old Records’ of the India Office, IOR L/E/53/531, f. 4r

[4] Markham, Clements R., Memoir on the Indian Surveys, pp. 9-10.

[5] See, especially, Felix Driver’s aforementioned Geography Militant: Cultures of Exploration and Empire (Wiley, 2000); Matthew Edney’s Mapping an Empire: the Geographical Construction of Britsih India 1765-1843 (U. Chicago Press, 1990); and Jim Endersby’s Imperial Nature: Joseph Hooker and the Practices of Victorian Science (U. Chicago Press, 2008).

[6] Ciaran Brady, James Anthony Froude: An Intellectual Biography of a Victorian Prophet (OUP, 2013).

[7] Katherine Verdery, Secrets and Truth: Ethnography in the Archive of Romania’s Secret Police (Central European University Press, 2013); Andreas Glaeser, Political Epistemics: The Secret Police, the Opposition, and the End of East German Socialism (U. Chicago Press, 2011).


Posted in Archives, India Office, Legacies of Empire

1857 on the Peripheries of Empire

During our recent workshop, Daniel Clayton emphasised  the importance of reflecting on where meaning congeals when investigating the impact of events and ideas across an empire. This approach is no more important than when considering the impact of the Indian Uprising of 1857. In India it represented a direct threat to European lives and property, and the authority of colonial rule; in London it represented a challenge to Britain’s reputation as the dominant global power, and a potential risk to colonial control across the empire. In many of the colonies, however, the Indian Uprising was primarily a distant crisis and a draw upon imperial resources. In our last two blogs we sought to demonstrate how the Indian Uprising spurred a mass mobilisation of imperial resources across the globe, as both human and ‘more-than-human’ entities were concentrated in the subcontinent. It would be easy to view the uprising as a centralising force, to apply that regional meaning across the empire. However, as we remember Clayton’s observations, it becomes clear that meaning does not congeal uniformly ‘everywhere and all at once.’ Rather, as will be demonstrated in this blog, the Indian Uprising existed as a peripheral event to many, its impact distant and indirect.

In fact, many colonies remained blissfully detached from events occurring on the other side of the globe, too concerned with local issues to spare much thought for such a distant crisis. This post will explore these ‘peripheries of 1857’ where, despite their own inward perspective, colonial administration was still inevitably affected by global imperial agendas. It will likewise focus upon the role occupied by the Colonial Office – in cooperation with the other offices of the home government in London – as a mediator, maintaining a global perspective and the concept of a united British Empire, even as the colonies retained singularly localised outlooks.

The peripheries of the empire in 1857 therefore provide an interesting insight into the processes of triage employed by the Colonial Office during periods of crisis. While our last blogs explored how  imperial resources were mobilised to serve a single purpose, this one will now investigate how, in spite of that seemingly singular focus, business-as-usual was preserved across the rest of the empire. With so much energy directed toward a single cause, methods of triage were employed to determine how remaining resources were distributed to ensure stability and that other imperial imperatives were maintained. This blog will focus on a few colonies that remained peripheral to the main crisis of 1857 and their engagements with the Home Government and the Empire as a whole.


Saint Helena
The case of St. Helena demonstrates the importance of communication networks for retaining a connection to the wider empire, as well as how associated technologies were unevenly distributed among the colonies. St. Helena was not only geographically isolated, but also communicationally and commercially isolated from the rest of the Empire. It received very little investment from the central government, as it was seen to hold only a very minor role in the promotion of imperial interests. While the Cape Colony commanded nearly one fifth the military expenditure spent across the British Empire, St. Helena received none. Once a crucial re-fuelling station, by 1857 St. Helena was relegated to a peripheral status within transoceanic and global networks of communication and transport. This placed it outside the central sphere of military and political interest, relegated to a position of only tertiary importance, with no standing imperial military and little external investment.[1] In fact, while the colony was often used by traders as a way-station on their travels between Europe and East Asia, it appears that it was not used by the military at all. In 1857, the Governor of St. Helena, Sir Edmund Hay Drummond Hay, received an offer from the United States of America Government, proposing the establishment of a naval depot on the island. Wishing the British to have first right of access to the strategic advantages ostensibly offered by St. Helena, Governor Hay wrote to the Colonial Office, describing “the well recognised advantages of geographical position, safety of roadstead, abundance of pure water, fresh provisions, and supplies of all kinds,” as well as the “peculiarly healthy climate of St. Helena [that would] add much to its value as a Naval Station.”[2] Ultimately, however, the Colonial Office consulted with the Admiralty and determined to allow the deal with the Americans.


Sketch of plan for Naval Depot at Rupert’s Valley, St. Helena

This decision is certainly representative of the lack of strategic interest which St. Helena commanded. The Colonial Office made a crucial decision to allow the island – which produced little internal revenue – to raise funds by renting land to a foreign power rather than invest resources in the colony. In 1857 the empire had little military resources to spare, but likewise they were interested in levying any and all assets they had. St. Helena clearly fell to the bottom of the list, both as a recipient and as a possible contributor toward the strategic interests of the empire.

The same seems to have applied to the commercial sector, which chiefly benefitted from the occasional visit of a merchant vessel looking to restock and refuel en route from Asia. As a result, it appears that the colony found itself struggling to maintain basic living standards for the small community of local residents. Far from being able to fund their own military, St. Helena struggled to finance basic infrastructure, even in the capital. James Town, the capital city of St. Helena, lacked a complete drainage system. In 1854, a project had been approved that would pave the main drain in James Town, making possible higher sanitation standards in the city. The paving was necessary for any future “arching over,” which would place the sewage drain underground, thereby improving public health standards as well as expanding the land area available for construction. However, a lack of funds had seen the work delayed for several years.

It was here therefore that the extent of the reliance upon local officials to maintain the day-to-day health of the empire is most readily apparent. Originally intended to be funded in part by the War Office, this infrastructure project had been delayed as a result of having never received the funds. By 1857 the situation was dire, with the need for higher sanitation standards in the city becoming ever more pressing, while the availability of funds from the imperial government to support colonial maintenance projects on the strategic periphery were at an all-time low. Governor Hay, therefore, developed a somewhat innovative plan whereby the drainage works would be completed gradually over time, drawing solely on surplus colonial revenues. The Colonial Office were happy to approve a scheme that would sever the Home Government from responsibility for financing colonial infrastructure, and allow their resources to be directed elsewhere.[3] It was likewise for these reasons that the Colonial Office similarly approved the building of an American naval depot on St. Helena, declining to use the island’s facilities for British purposes.


While St. Helena was isolated from the whole of the Empire, Trinidad remained closely connected with other colonies in its vicinity and with consumer markets in Europe, despite being distant from events in India. Its government retained a uniquely Caribbean perspective, focused upon the protection of local industry. A surge in sugar prices in 1857 inspired a significant expansion in cultivation which, in turn, required a larger supply of cheap agricultural labour. In the decades following Emancipation, this need had primarily been met by Indian indenture, and the onset of the unrest on the subcontinent was not to deter demand. Despite the supposed preponderance of free trade ideologies at this time, it is clear that the protection of Caribbean sugar interests was seen as a priority in England. It was a convenience that meeting consumer demand for sugar in England intersected with the punitive agendas of Indian lawmakers.

At the end of 1857, the uprising was mostly over, and the Court of Directors of the East India Company was debating what to do with the population of former mutineers. Most agreed that Transportation was the best course of action for dealing with the majority, but a conclusion as to where they should be sent was yet to be made. Colonies such as Trinidad, which were desperate for labour, began bidding to receive the convicts. In November 1857, Governor Robert W. Keate of Trinidad forwarded a report presented by the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the Council on Immigration in Trinidad, presenting a plan by which the colony proposed to accept minor offenders from among the Indian mutineers. The Chairman and Governor proposed a plan whereby “however penal in its nature the expatriation of these offenders might be made, their reception in Trinidad would not bear that character.”[4] In other words, instead of maintaining a separate, and costly, Convict Establishment on the island, they proposed to integrate the deported mutineers into the general Indian indentured labour force. They suggested that the mutineers would be indentured to agricultural labour for a period of ten years, “but with power reserved to the Governor of transferring their services or cancelling their indentures.”[5] Far from expressing worries that the mutineers might inspire similar unrest among the existing Trinidadian indentures, or for the general security of the colony, the Trinidad colonial government promoted a plan that prioritised the efficacy of this new work force by pushing for total integration:

I fear that…a contract of such duration with the same employer would present too servile an appearance, and that the distinction between the two classes of Indian labourers would therefore be too marked. It would be preferable, I think, that these deported immigrants, as I would call them, should be assigned for that length of time to the local Government instead of to individual employers, and that this assignment should take place of, and operate in the same way as, the obligation to the residence of ten years now imposed by the Immigration Ordinance No. 24 of 1854 on voluntary Indian immigrants. The labour indentures of both classes should then, I think, be made identical in duration, and the same right of purchasing their time might be extended to both.[6]

In fact, the demand for inexpensive labour in the Caribbean colonies was such that it inspired rivalries. Trinidad repeatedly bemoaned the perceived favouritism shown to the nearby colony of British Guiana in the distribution of deported mutineers. Governor Keate complained that British Guiana received privileged access to this ready supply of labour, as well as receiving advantages in the usual avenues of labour acquisition, in the form of a representative agent for emigration posted in Bombay. Keate complained that if British Guiana were permitted an Emigration Agent in Bombay, so too should they be, so that Trinidad could also gain access to the “higher calibre” migrants.[7]

This inter-colony tension similarly reared its head when gold was discovered on the border of British Guiana. Trinidad raised repeated concerns that the prospect of gold would inspire agricultural labourers to abandon their fields, and indentures to flee their contracts, to seek their fortune in the neighbouring colony.


British Guiana
British Guiana, meanwhile, seemed not to return much of the animosity directed  their way from Trinidad. They expressed similar concerns for their ability to provide workers for the sugar plantations, but were primarily preoccupied with issues of domestic unrest. Chiefly, this centred upon a border dispute with Venezuela, inflamed by the discovery of gold. In aiming to meet their needs in this regard, British Guiana made repeated requests to the Home Government for support, showing little-to-no understanding of how London’s attention might be divided in meeting demands for military, financial, and diplomatic support.

Like Trinidad, British Guiana was primarily a plantation economy, and similarly desired to increase their supply of inexpensive, agricultural labour through the increased importation of Indian indentures. In one instance, the colony was eager to establish a convict settlement from whence the prisoners would be relegated to agricultural work.[8]

In 1857, the colony was granted permission to station an Emigration Agent in Bombay to represent their interests in recruiting labourers, a fact that, as already noted, irritated other colonies that were denied such powers.[9] Inter-colony struggles to control the labour market in this region were not a new event in this region; dating as far back as the late-1830s, in the years following the end of Apprenticeship, Barbados, Trinidad, and British Guiana all attempted to influence the movement of labour. British Guiana, in particular, was known for setting up financial incentives to encourage former slaves to emigrate there from other colonies.[10]

The discovery of gold on the Venezuelan border of British Guiana not only exacerbated these inter-colony tensions, but also reinvigorated a standing boundary dispute. The gold was found at Upata, in a mountainous region separating British and Venezuelan territory. The exact line, however, separating these two regions of Guiana had been under dispute for some years, with multiple reports placing the border at varying points. The River Orinoco, for example, was but one possible border line, as well as carrying greater importance for its being the primary artery from the coast and the only major waterway into the Upata region. With the mouth of the Orinoco currently under British control, the government of British Guiana was anxious to ensure proper protection for this strategic holding while the border dispute was being settled. They requested a naval ship of war be posted at Point Barima, at the mouth of the Orinoco, to prevent its occupation by any foreign powers. In response the Admiralty pointed out that simply no ships of war were then available to stand guard, prompting Secretary of State for the Colonies, Henry Labouchere, to assure the colonial government that he “considers it to be very desirable that in due season a Ship of War should…visit the mouth of the Orinoco for the protection of British interests” even if such action was, at that time, not possible.[11] The missive likewise urged the colonial authorities to make every effort to themselves secure British interests in the region. In other words: the Home Government made clear that the colony was responsible for protecting its own borders and that no imperial resources were at that time available to help.

The border dispute with Venezuela is an interesting example of a local concern that intersected with wider imperial agendas. While eager to lay claim to profits from the gold, the Home Government were not so keen that they were willing to jeopardise peace in the region. Though settlement of the border was imperative if they wished to claim gold, it was equally important for protecting British sovereignty in the region against the claims of the Venezuelans and, most ominously, encroaching American businesses. Upon closer examination, we therefore find that the Colonial and Foreign Offices liaised closely on this subject despite being anxious to not inflame tensions, and unwilling to dedicate financial or personal resources to its settlement. There are clear processes of triage at work here, as diplomatic and knowledge-based solutions were sought in lieu of military options.


Map of the disputed Venezuelan and British Guianese border

Old surveys and maps were favoured over new exploratory expeditions. The colonial government’s repeated sending of survey teams to assess the landscape was strongly opposed by the Home Government. This was particularly true of groups sent to view the gold fields at Upata. The colonists claimed that the expeditions were “composed of British subjects having no intention of infringing any rights of the neighbouring country, but merely of ascertaining and reporting upon the position and prospect of the deposits of gold so as to enable the government of British Guiana to take such steps as may appear advisable.”[12] In so doing, their primary objective, in addition to ensuring that any possible claim to gold was capitalised upon, was to respond to rumours and hearsay within the colonial community and in the media, that the gold was British. Nevertheless, such expeditions risked being seen to aggressively violate Venezuela’s territorial sovereignty. Not being in a position to support any conflagration in the region, the Home Government therefore strongly opposed the sending of survey teams. Instead, they relied upon pre-existing surveys and, most importantly, maps revealing the colony’s territorial boundaries while it was still under the control of the Dutch. Reports from the colony were consulted along with those from the Foreign Consul in Venezuelan Guiana, as well as maps and historical surveys.

One theorist to whom the colony referred in their reports on the matter was Sir Robert Schomburgk, thought to have outlined the most likely boundary in his map of the region. In addition, were others such as Bouchenveder’s map, which suggested a more liberal boundary, giving more territory to the British:

I have carefully perused the correspondence upon the subject of our boundary which took place between Her Majesty’s Government and the Venezuelan Minister in 1841-42, and as the Government of the province of Venezuelan Guiana was allowed to remove the landmarks planted at Point Barima by Sir Robert Schomburgk, although without prejudice to the claims of Great Britain, and that Point is at the entrance of the only channel of the Orinoco navigable by vessels of any great burden, it is obviously desirable that all doubt should be removed as to its rightful possession. I have been as yet unable to trace any memorandum of the data upon which Sir Robert Schomburgk based his survey, but no doubt such exists in the archives of the Colonial Office…In Bouchenveder’s map, it is distinctly laid down that a Dutch post existed on the right bank of the River Barima thus indicating that stream, as the natural and actual boundary in that locality, between Spanish and Dutch Guiana.[13]

Acknowledging the urgency of settling the boundary, the Colonial Office communicated with the Geographical society for any information of the Dutch post mentioned by the Lieutenant Governor. Information concerning the historic boundary – that which had been delineated by the Dutch before handing over the territory to British control – was seen as the most certain way of confirming the boundary without any conflict or need for extra resources. The settlement of the boundary would, in turn, clearly place any gold on either Venezuelan or British land, thereby establishing ownership. Since any reasonable settlement – the Bouchenveder plan being seen to be far too ambitious – was likely to favour the Venezuelans in this regard, the Colonial and Foreign Offices used the British Consul in Bolivar to negotiate for the use of British Guiana as an avenue to those lands, using their control of Point Barima to their advantage. According to this plan, the colony would benefit from the commerce of gold-seekers and merchants, if not from the gold itself.

The boundary between Venezuelan and British Guiana held very real political and economic implications for the region, yet it was settled not through the application of physical resources – such as military, personnel, or money – but rather through the implementation of that paper-based empire. Maps and surveys, used to document the physical geography of the region, were seen as an alternative solution to a complex geopolitical problem.


British Honduras
A border dispute similarly featured at the centre of colonial politics in British Honduras, which at this time was governed by a Superintendent, serving under the authority of the Governor of Jamaica. The post was held by Frederick Seymour, who wrote regularly of issues along the border shared by the colony and Mexico. The boundary in this case was settled as lying along the Hondo River. However, delegation of responsibility for maintaining border security remained uncertain, as did that for the people who moved across the border. Migration was common from both sides, with tribal peoples from the Yucatan moving into the British colony, and colonial logging firms travelling onto Mexican lands in pursuit of valuable trees.

British Honduras

British Honduras

In May 1857, the Chichanha tribe moved across to the British side of the Hondo, fleeing the hostility of stronger tribes in the Yucatan. They then proceeded to cut down mahogany trees to create a settlement, which threatened the local logging industry. Superintendent Frederick Seymour found himself responsible for determining not only whether to allow the Chichanhas to stay and how many British resources were to be redirected toward defending the border against the tribes who sought to follow them, but also how to best mediate relations between the Chichanhas and local loggers. Seymour expressed a fear that a collision between the Chichanhas and the mahogany cutters “could be embarrassing, especially so close to a disputed frontier.” With no support available from either Jamaica or England, and little military at hand domestically, Seymour sought a diplomatic solution, suggesting “the tribes attracted to our settlement by the protection which it ensures against the attacks of their enemies may be induced to remain therein; and dispersing into smaller bands, advance to the interior where their services would be valuable as labourers and timber cutters.”[14]

As in St. Helena, the situation in British Honduras highlights the extent to which the Colonial Office depended upon the actions of individual characters for the maintenance of a stable empire. Despite British Honduras being officially controlled by the Governor of Jamaica, it was the Superintendent of British Honduras, Frederick Seymour, who made the critical decisions that determined refugee policy, balanced commercial and political agendas, and ensured the security of the border with Mexico. By the time the Colonial Office received word of events in the colony, the information had already been filtered through the government in Jamaica and was, as a result, several weeks old. They relied upon the dependability of local governors to ensure that the colonies remained stable, and that the image of British global dominance, and the conceived global empire, were being preserved.


The cases illustrated here have been selected to give a sense of the myriad issues occurring around the globe in 1857. Together, they demonstrate the different ways in which colonies related to the central government and to each other; it points to the regional concerns and themes that pre-empted the Indian Uprising in the imaginations of colonies on the global periphery. It moreover illuminates the means by which the Colonial Office navigated this complex web of inter-colonial relations to preserve a sense of an imperial community, united under the flag of the British Empire. From London, the Colonial Office performed acts of triage, prioritising issues in the colonies, analysing their importance for the imperial agenda, and distributing resources accordingly. They employed alternative methods, communicating closely with other government offices to ensure the most efficient, and cost-effective methods were employed. They also relied upon a network of colonial officials in the absence of reliable avenues of immediate communication to preserve the day-to-day stability of colonial life. Ultimately, the Colonial Office however chose to defer many problems. By encouraging colonies to engage in knowledge-collection and in protecting the status quo, they in many instances deferred action until a time when the consequences could be better dealt with.

Kate Boehme


[1] Most colonies retained a combination of colonial-funded and British-funded military resources, with the amount of the latter usually connected to perceived vulnerability and strategic importance to the interests of the wider British Empire.
[2] National Archives. Saint Helena Despatches 1857. “Sir E.H. Drummond Hay to Secretary Henry Labouchere,” (30 Nov, 1857).
[3] National Archives. Saint Helena Despatches 1857. “Sir E.H. Drummond Hay to Secretary Henry Labouchere,” (16 May 1857).
[4] National Archives. Trinidad Despatches 1 Sept – 30 Nov 1857, No. 113, “Governor Robert W. Keate to Secretary Henry Labouchere, (6 Nov, 1857).
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] National Archives. Trinidad Despatches 1 Sept – 30 Nov 1857, No. 89, “Governor Robert W. Keate to Secretary Henry Labouchere, (5 Sept, 1857).
[8] National Archives. British Guiana Offices 1857, No. 1115, “Foreign Office to Colonial Office,” (9 Feb, 1857).
[9] National Archives. British Guiana Despatches 1 Jan – 30 April 1858, No. 11, “Lieutenant-Governor William Walker to Secretary Henry Labouchere,” (23 Jan, 1858).
[10] Alana Johnson. “The Barbados Emigration War,” presented at After Slavery? Labour and Migration in the Post-Emancipation World, (27 June, 2016).
[11] National Archives. British Guiana Offices 1857, No. 9356, “Foreign Office to Herman Merivale,” (9 Oct, 1857).
[12] National Archives. British Guiana Offices 1857, “R. Bingham to Mr. Gutierrez,” (14 Sept, 1857).
[13] National Archives. British Guiana Despatches 1 July – 31 Dec 1857, No. 20, “Lieutenant Governor William Walker to Secretary Henry Labouchere,” (24 Sept, 1857).
[14] National Archives. British Honduras Despatches 1857, Confidential Despatch No. 1, “Superintendent Frederick Seymour to Lieutenant Governor Major General Bell, (15 May, 1857).

Posted in 1857, Colonial Office, Islands in History, Mapping Empire

Mobilising an Empire: Part 2 – “Not Calculated to Attract Any Particular Attention,” Or, How to Smuggle an Army Through Someone Else’s Country Without Anyone Making a Fuss

In 1857, as the Indian Uprising threatened the stability and integrity of the British Empire, the British Government and the East India Company engaged in a massive smuggling operation. The cargo was people: armed men, shuttled en masse and in disguise, across the territory of a sovereign state over which Britain had no jurisdiction, in order to suppress, with overwhelming force, an unprecedentedly large colonial rebellion.

In part 1 of this blog, we looked at how the global mobilization of 1857 played out in the Cape Colony. George Grey’s attempts to contribute to the empire-wide movement of troops towards India to suppress the uprising, while simultaneously managing his own problems of unrest and conflict, and putting his case to a metropolitan government that was far from convinced of the quality of his performance or his entitlement to the financial resources he was consuming, shows (we hope) something of the global nature of the crisis that overtook the empire in 1857, and the ways in which colonial administrators, in metropolitan and colonial settings, managed the conflicting and complex demands of responding to the crisis.

In part 2, we’re looking at how the apparatus of government managed, between August 1857 and the end of the uprising in early 1858, to smuggle about 5,000 British troops across the Suez isthmus in Egypt.

This effort involved, first, all the agencies of government in the capital: the East India Company and the Board of Control, the War Office, the Foreign Office, the Colonial Office and the Admiralty. Beyond the immediate circles of government, it necessitated the cooperation of the private companies which controlled ships, mails and telegraphs. Further afield, it drew in the representatives of government abroad: diplomatic and consular staff, Company agents, military and naval establishments overseas, colonial governors and their staff, and the Indian Government and Presidencies, each with their own military and civil administrative establishments and spheres of operation that went beyond the shores and land borders of British India itself. As we’ll see in our next blog, it also drew in the wider apparatus of empire: navigational and communications technology, geography and exploration, resource management and extraction, and questions of geostrategy and sovereignty which sat at the intersection of engineering, science, law, territorial possession and the use of force.

But first, why smuggle troops over Egypt at all, and what was involved?

First, there was a strong sense of necessity, exacerbated by a lack of information about what was happening in India. As we’ve seen, mails were carried by a system of fast steamers, from India to Suez, and then over the peninsular by horse transport and rail to Alexandria, and thence onward via mail steamer to Malta, Marseilles and Southampton. There were telegraph lines across the isthmus, and across continental Europe from both Marseilles and Trieste, but whether they were used or not, the time lag in communications was generally around a month. The first news of the Uprising itself took forty days to travel, by steamer and telegraph via Trieste, from Meerut (the site of the first outbreak) to London. With no idea how much of the Bengal army had revolted, how far the uprising had spread, and how many troops would be needed to put it down, officials in London were naturally eager to send as many troops to India in the shortest possible time.

Template map Indian Ocean and Red Sea_Cropped

The transport of troops and materiel would take even longer than that of information. The best estimates as of 1857 placed sailing times, by Egypt or the Cape, as follows:

TABLE sailing times 2

(It should be noted here that the Suez route was entirely dependent on the existence of steam, or at least of hybrid sail/steam technology: sailing ships without engines could find themselves becalmed in the Red Sea for months on end. This is why, as we saw in our blog on steam technology in 1838, the use of the Red Sea as a seaway depended on the establishment of a solid infrastructure of coaling stations. Another point to note about the above table is that the timings for Suez were derived from the feedback of information that came back to London as the policy was put into operation, in a kind of capillary interplay of trial and error, improvisation and analysis of constantly changing intelligence sources – here as ever, it’s important not to fall into the trap of viewing imperial policymaking as something which is manufactured in majestic isolation in the imperial centre and then simply applied, unidirectionally, to faraway places.)

As for the attempts at discretion (‘secrecy’ seems optimistic, given the numbers of troops who ended up making the trip), in 1857, transporting troops openly through Egypt presented several problems. A large body of troops on foreign soil, in military order, could be expected to cause enormous diplomatic difficulties: although relations with the Ottoman Empire were friendly after the Crimean War of 1853-5, some resistance might reasonably be expected. Besides, as we’ll see, Egypt’s relation to the empire which supposedly governed it was somewhat complex, and there were issues of prestige for all involved.

Besides the diplomatic issues, there were practical challenges. The Suez Canal was in its early surveying stages, and would not be completed until 1869, after nearly ten years’ work. There was a railway between Alexandria and Cairo, and work was continuing on a line onward from Cairo to Suez, but it was far from complete. From the end of the railway, about twenty miles from Suez, the rest of the journey had to be done by horse-drawn van. Whatever course was taken, the logistics on the ground would have to be taken care of by Major John Green, the Acting Vice-Consul and East India Company agent in Alexandria – the same John Green who we’ve already seen struggling to manage the flows of news and information coming through Egypt, and already overburdened with responsibilities beyond his scope.

But first, there was the fraught business of policymaking to get through: how to get the different agencies of government to commit to such an eccentric course? Concurrently, the inevitable diplomatic effects and risks had to be anticipated and managed. Let’s look at these in turn.



Sending troops overland to India was never a foregone conclusion, and the decision to do so involved activating networks of communication and correspondence between the offices of government in London. The main archival series we’ve been looking at for 1857 is the Company’s Political and Secret Correspondence. This is, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, a slightly strange series: although the Committee was officially a part of the Company, set up to deal with all political and diplomatic policy (in peacetime its major function was to deal with the Princely States), in practice it was the link between the Company and the Board on political, diplomatic and geostrategic policy; and the Board, in turn, was the mediator between it and all the other offices of government. If the Company wanted to (let’s say, just for example) request the War Office to supply large amounts of Crown troops, that request went through the Political and Secret Committee, and then through the Board, to the War Office – and any reply came back, again, through the Board. The Board also exercised complete control over the information that reached the Company from India; if the Directors wished to share any of it with the Court at large, the Committee would have to ask the Board’s permission. When the Foreign Office received intelligence that bore on the situation at hand, or engaged in correspondence that the Directors would need to know about in formulating their own policy, they would send copies of it, through the Board, to the Committee. In sum, when the Company’s rule in India was faced with a grave and immediate threat, almost all its correspondence for dealing with it was mediated by the Board; and all the correspondence that passed was kept, in duplicate, in the records of the Political and Secret Committee.

Given all the conditions noted above, it was perhaps inevitable that the Company would at some point ask for troops to be sent through Egypt; but how those requests would go down with the Foreign and War Offices was a question of some moment. How the Board was to mediate what might well turn out to be a snarl of competing priorities and anxieties was another.

Initially, there were no apparent conflicts. In mid-July, around the time that the first drafts of Crown troops were leaving for India, the Company sent a letter to the Army leadership at the Horse Guards: the Court of Directors, wrote James Melvill (secretary to the Company), “…begs to inform [the Commander-in-Chief] that on the 10th Hussars proceeding to Bombay in 1846, a party of officers and men was sent overland to train Horses for the Effective mounting of the Regiment on its arrival in India. … [they] desired to suggest, whether a like course should be followed as respects the 2nd and 3rd Dragoon Guards, now under order for Bengal and Bombay respectively.”[1]

The suggestion was taken up: two days later the C-in-C communicated his assent. Two parties were to go out initially, consisting of a Captain, riding-master, vet, and nine NCOs and men. Each man was to receive £2 (out of the Company’s charge, it was swiftly decided) for civilian clothes as they crossed the isthmus: the parties were to go in mufti, posing as ordinary civilians. Before the first couple of parties, in mid-August, Green remarked to Lord Clarendon (the Foreign Secretary, and therefore his boss) that “[t]he passage through Egypt of the small party of men alluded to is not calculated to attract any particular attention here as being in plain clothes they pass as Officers’ servants and other second class Passengers such as it is not unusual to see amongst the transit travellers.”[2]

The initial parties were a success; more were sent, and as it became clear that they were encountering no difficulties, the Company began to consider a larger-scale operation. In mid-July, a Lt Col J. G. Fraser sent a memo to the Company, adverting to his logistical experience in Egypt and suggesting a plan for transporting large numbers of troops through Suez. Fraser suggests staggering the arrival of troops with the mails, so as not to overburden communications links; troops could be disembarked en masse in the morning, given breakfast in the train to Cairo, and then loaded straight onto vans for the desert crossing, to arrive at Suez by early the next morning for immediate embarkation. The troops, he writes, would be in groups of about 200, carefully watched the whole way “to prevent them communicating with the people of the company”; he envisages a permanent supply of troops passing to India by this route, to the number of 3,000 a year.[3] The plan was, perhaps, no more detailed than what the Company was already considering, but the unsolicited mail on the subject testifies, perhaps, to the idea’s rapid circulation.

Initially, however, the Board, in consultation with the Government – or perhaps anticipating what they expected the government’s position to be – were resistant. The Court persisted: in early September they communicated to the Board that they had consulted with the Pacific and Oriental Steam Packet Company (P&O), who had proposed a timetable and costing; in the letter, the Court note that, “HM Govt being the best, if not the only competent, judges of the difficulties which may be opposed to the adoption of the course in question…”, the matter might be considered again.[4] Despite the ingratiating tone, a separate letter sent the same day informed the Board that the Court had already accepted P&O’s offer.

The affair caused a bruising exchange between Court and Board: while the Court contended, with no apparent justification, that they believed they had been given tacit permission in a private conversation between Robert Vernon Smith (President of the Board of Control) and the Directors, Vernon Smith understood no such thing:

It is time that this subject, with very many others relating to the speedy dispatch of troops to India, had been discussed in the conversations which I have frequently had the honour of holding with you since the commencement of the late unfortunate events. But, as no steps had been taken of a formal nature to bring before HM Govt the views of the Court of Directors upon this head, and of course concluded that they agreed, through you, in the objections urged against them views of HM Govt, and I think it would lead to any end rather than that of the united government of the Court of Directors and the Board, if every proposal that had been broached at our confidential interviews was, in times of great public emergency, to be addressed as scheme submitted to, and rejected by, the Board.[5]

What is at stake, he admonishes, is the running of imperial government itself; should such actions be taken on debatable interpretations of verbal contact, he writes, “it is obvious that the President of this Board would be under great disadvantage, and that, instead of facilitating, [the Court] would impede, by the most unpleasant recriminations, and differences of recollection as to what had passed, the united action, as well as the good feelings, of the component parts of the government of India.”[6] In the same letter, however, he informs the Court of arrangements for the passage through Egypt of a company of soldiers being moved from Malta to Aden, to make up a shortfall of troops sent from Aden to Bombay. It’s possible to see here, perhaps, how the extreme compression of crisis management brings into a sharper focus the cross-purposes, conflict and animosity – the friction, if you like – between agencies of government within the imperial centre. The copies of Vernon Smith’s letters in the Political and Secret correspondence are drafts, so that, as above, we can see how stronger phrases have been stricken out and replaced by more diplomatic ones: this is a recurring feature of draft correspondence during the crisis, in which it’s possible to see the strain that went into maintaining a constructive dialogue. The need to act fast and decisively forces simultaneous protest and assent; agencies are forced, as it were in the same breath, to co-operate on the business of governmentality while decrying breaches of protocol and questioning each others’ commitment to the functioning of government itself.

In this particular clash, certain points of protocol are at least provisionally clarified. The exchange ends with Vernon Smith expressing his dismay that what he took to be a relatively informal or semi-formal meeting was to be interpreted by the Court as a discussion of concrete policy or communication of intent:

I never understood that the propriety of sending troops though Egypt had been discussed between me and yourselves on the part of the Court; nor do I understand how you could speak on the part of the Court, without having ascertained the opinion of the Court in the usual manner, as I have so often found in our intercourse that the Chairman and deputy Chairman have been entirely mistaken in what they believed would be the decision of the majority of the Directors. … I must, therefore, request that whenever the Court make you the channel of imparting to me their views, with the intention of bringing them before me as a matter of official record, to which public reference may thereafter be made, you will have the goodness to set forth those views formally in writing.” [7]

If anything, Vernon Smith is in a position of extreme embarrassment: the Board’s job is to be the channel of all communication between the Company and the Government at large, and here it has effectively been circumvented on the flimsiest of pretexts. (As it happens, the protocol he clarifies at the end of this passage was not fated to last long: within a year, and before the crisis was even fully over, both Board and Company would be formally abolished and replaced by the India Office, a fully-fledged agency of Government itself, with India transferred to Crown rule. After 1858, administrative spats would have to find other channels.)

By late October, the War Office was giving full assent to sending troops through Egypt, “as our experience in sending small parties of troops by that route justifies the attempt with a complete regiment”.[8] As far as the Company and the Board were concerned, policy was set: from here on, troops would travel to India by both Cape and overland routes.


Just as the Company were dependent on the War Office to grant them troops and arrange their readiness, they could only undertake diplomatically risky projects like the Suez gambit with the assent and co-operation of the Foreign Office. The FO had to mobilise its own networks of consular agents, ambassadors and spies, and its own documentary logistics of sealed packages, diplomatic mail, cryptography and flying seals, to assist the war effort and provide intelligence on proximate and remote threats. Although the FO readily gave assent to the early small parties crossing the isthmus, the whole affair clearly jangled diplomatic nerves: only a few days after approving the plan, the FO wrote to the company (marked “IMMEDIATE AND CONFIDENTIAL”) that “the Earl of Clarendon …request[s] that you will state to the President of the Board of Controul that it is of the utmost consequence that the intention to resort to this measure should not be suffered to transpire, and that on the contrary all parties concerned in carrying it out should be strictly cautioned not to allow the nature of the orders given on the subject in any way to become public.”[9] Even when the pretence of secrecy was entirely token, the Foreign Office continued to counsel caution.

In the meantime, delicate diplomatic approaches had to be made to the Ottoman authorities. Lord Stratford, the British Ambassador to the Porte, managed to secure the assent of Sultan Abdülmecid I to the early parties. Egypt, however, was in practice almost an independent state, in which the Sultan’s Wāli, Muhammad Sa’id Pasha, exercised a degree of autonomy that the Foreign Office seems to have wished it understood the precise dimensions of more fully. It fell to Green to manage the Pasha, Stratford to manage the Sultan and the authorities in Istanbul, and Clarendon to manage them both, resulting in a frequent and meticulous three-way correspondence between them. Directing his initial approaches as the overland policy grew in scope, Clarendon wrote to Green:

…this Govt think it due to the Pasha, who has always evinced so much consideration and attention for their wishes, not to leave him in ignorance of the real character of the large body of passengers who will pass through Egypt with the next mail… You may add that the men will not remain on shore in Egypt beyond the time absolutely required for their passage through the Country.[10]

To Stratford, he wrote:

Your Lordship will mention this arrangement to the Porte, as Mr Green has been instructed to mention it to the Pasha of Egypt; but as the men pass ostensibly as Civilians, it is scarcely to be expected that the measure will call for forth any observation on the part of the Turkish Govt[11]

The policy here, clearly, was that the operation would be soft-pedalled as much as possible. When the first rather larger group of soldiers was sent through in September, Stratford was encouraged not to say anything unless specifically asked; and, if asked, to emphasize that the men would not be in military array, their arms would be travelling separately, and that they would not stay in Egypt “beyond the time absolutely required for their conveyance through the Country”.[12] Once it had been decided to send through larger bodies of troops, stronger expressions of assent would be required.

The mail ship carrying the Sultan’s letter of assent arrived at Alexandria in early October, and it fell to Green to present it. He reported back to Clarendon that:

I will require a little judgment to communicate the Sultan’s letter to the Vice Roy without offending the Vice Roy’s dignity, but the written declaration of HH … enables me, by not hurrying the presentation of this document, to place it in the light of a sanction rather that an order. The exceptional state of things here induces me to use a certain discretion in these proceedings, as it is better that I should take some responsibility on myself, than risk the inconvenience which might result from annoying the Vice Roy at a moment when he might easily retaliate…. without the complete cooperation of the Egyptian Govt it would be impracticable to carry out any measure of this kind, and indeed if the Vice Roy had any disinclination to it, it would be utterly impossible to get over the difficulties that might quietly be thrown in our way.”[13]

A week or so later, Green reported their meeting:

“Said Pasha then alluded to two letters he had received from the Porte, and gave me an opportunity of explaining that I wished him to have his correspondence from Constple before presenting the letter that had been forwarded to me & which I then handed to him. As HH mentioned two letters, I mentioned I had only read one, when he stated that the other letter informed him that instructions would be sent to him as to the number of Troops to pass through Egypt. I observed that I might report this to Yr Ldshp, when he said it might subject him to annoyance at Constple. … I do not attach any importance to this matter, but it is as well to know that something has been said by the Porte as limiting the number of Troops passed through Egypt.[14]

What’s striking here is the level of care that Green, Stratford and Clarendon, all talented diplomats, put into testing the temper of the Ottoman authorities, and trying to descry, from outward signs, the inner workings and tensions of another imperial government – a government with its own ways of doing things and its own complex relationship between core and periphery. While engaged in their own networked correspondence, they’re constantly trying to deduce what correspondence has occurred between their opposite numbers, and to understand the relationships between actors from each of whom they need to exact a certain kind of compliance.

Making the trip

The way had been opened, then – albeit provisionally, and with a certain sense of precariousness. From here on, between the steam companies, the War Office, the Board and the Company and the Foreign Office, a workable logistics began to take shape. The Foreign Office were keen that, once arrived at Alexandria, the troops should not even leave their ships until a telegraph from Suez indicated that ships are waiting ready for embarkation: and that, once ashore, they should be moved as quickly as possible. All parties agreed that the passage of troops should not impede that of the mail: governmental agencies and the Company itself would not brook any obstruction to the vital flow of information, and the steam and telegraph companies’ credit depended on delivering it. Where there is conflict between troops and information, information takes priority. Remarkably, the troops continue to travel in mufti, at least nominally: factored into shipping companies’ and the War Office’s plans, there is always a charge for a civilian overcoat, and equipment is often mentioned as being disguised as luggage – how successfully is open to question.

How the journey actually was for those who experienced it – if not troops, then those who went with them – was recorded, with a dyspeptic eye and Dickensian bathos, by William Howard Russell, the Times correspondent who had made his name in the Crimea. Russell passed through in early 1858, and apart from his complaints about food and accommodation, the impression he gives is of an operation that, though ramshackle and apparently, seemed to get the job done. His account is vividly alive to the juxtapositions and displacements of intense colonial and military activity in a small area suddenly invested with geostrategic significance, and of an infrastructure under rapid construction and unexpected strain. He writes of the train from Alexandria being held up for two hours to make way for the Pasha’s private train, which never comes (the message is relayed by telegraph to “some distant station along the line”, and then conveyed to the train by foot); he also writes of coaling stations along the line as “helpless, hot, ovenlike erections generally eked out by old Crimean wooden huts, within which may be seen an undoubted Englishman, smoking his pipe”. He notes European and quasi-European food and drink being advertised at various stops, or transported out from Cairo for the passengers and soldiers; of passengers and soldiers themselves, rather against what the Foreign Office had hoped, crammed into crowded trains together; and lends a Dickensian absurdity to his description of the vans that took the troops the last few miles to Suez: “Brighton bathing-boxes laid longitudinally on wheels, to which were attached creatures of an uncertain number of legs, resembling very much Scarborough ponies at the end of the season”.[15]

A more straitlaced account comes from The Times, in October of 1857, as the first large levies began to pass through:

The conduct of the men was most orderly. A lusty chorus, which in several occasions proceeded from the carriages, testified to their good humour; and any petty discomforts of the journey through Egypt were quite unheeded in their satisfaction at travelling ‘like gentlemen’.[16]

In the end, the policy of transporting troops by the overland route had few alarming repercussions. Certainly, there will be a lot to write about how it shifted or accelerated the development of communications and navigation infrastructure in the Middle East, and how this fits into the broader diplomatic and geostrategic effects of the Uprising on an international level. There must also be room, I think, for more granular studies of the logistics and the administrative processes behind the policy itself. Of the approximately 40,000 troops that traveled to India from all over the Empire, only about 5,000 traveled through Egypt; by early 1858, when it was clear in London that the need for further drafts was no longer urgent enough to make the shorter route necessary, transports reverted to travelling almost entirely by the Cape route. Although the conflict would continue into the spring, the first scramble to respond was over. The final item in the Political and Secret Correspondence for 1857 is dated the 31st of December. It is a response from the Directors to a notification from the Board that they will be seeking to have the Company abolished.


— Peter Mitchell


[1] Melvill to Yorke, July 18 1857; IOR L/PS/3/54, p. 657

[2] Green to Clarendon, August 19 1857; IOR L/PS/3/55, p. 327

[3] Fraser to the Company, July 18 1857; IOR L/PS/3/55, pp. 175-183

[4] Mangles and Currie to Vernon Smith, Sept 9 1857; IOR L/PS/3/55, pp. 343-4

[5] Vernon Smith to the Chairs, Sept 17 1857; IOR L/PS/3/55, pp.479-80

[6] Ibid, p. 480

[7] Vernon Smith to Chairs, Sept 25 1857; IOR L/PS/3/55 pp. 705-10

[8] Storks (War Office) to Clerk, Oct 26 1857; IOR L/PS/3/56 p. 271

[9] Hammond to Clerk, July 24 1857; IOR L/PS/3/54, p. 691

[10] Clarendon to Green, Sept 16 1857; IOR L/PS/3/55, p. 681-2

[11] Clarendon to Stratford, Sept 22 1857; IOR L/PS/3/55, p. 685-6

[12] Clarendon to Stratford, Sept 16 1857: IOR L/PS/3/55, p. 667

[13] Green to Clarendon, Oct 12 1857 (copy): IOR L/PS/3/56, pp. 349-51; Green to Clarendon, Oct 9 1857, Ibid. pp. 353-5

[14] Green to Clarendon, IOR L/PS/3/56, pp. 384-6

[15] Quoted in Anthony Sattin, Lifting the Veil: Two Centuries of Travellers, Traders and Tourists in Egypt (Tauris Park: London, 2011), pp. 56-7

[16] The Times (London, England), Thursday, Oct 29, 1857; pg. 10; Issue 22824.

Posted in 1857, India Office, Military

Mobilising an Empire: Part 1 – Sir George Grey and the Tale of the Self-Sacrificing Cape Colony

In our last couple of blogs, we have proposed the merits of viewing the violence of 1857 as a global event: one which necessitated the mobilisation of a global network of communications, technology, people, and power, and made use of all the means of bureaucracy, diplomacy, logistics, and violence available to the British Imperial State and the East India Company.

In this two-parter, we will be exploring the events of 1857 from the centre in India, and from the ‘peripheries’, considering both how the resources of empire were tapped in order to mobilise troops for service in India and, on the other hand, how such mobilisation efforts affected policy development in other colonies. In this first part, we will focus on the Cape Colony, which supplied many of the regiments used to put down the rebellion in India. Next week, the blog will focus on how the Indian Government and India Office in England coordinated complex geostrategic and diplomatic efforts to move troops from England through Egypt and the Red Sea.


The Cape
The Cape Colony featured heavily in those efforts to mobilise the Empire to support India. While for the East India Company Board of Control and the Government of India, the Cape was a crucial resource for suppressing the rebellion, it is important to remember that the Cape government likewise had its own concerns. The Indian Uprising, therefore, from the perspective of the Cape, served as a significant, but peripheral, event that shaped, but did not overwhelm, domestic issues. It was the Colonial Office, meanwhile, that balanced these two perspectives, identifying the Cape’s value in meeting imperial priorities while also seeking to maintain the security and stability of the colony. It is the ways in which these perspectives coincided to shape Cape Colony policy that will be discussed here.


Sir George Grey

Sir George Grey

The Indian Uprising
The colony’s governor, Sir George Grey, enthusiastically responded to requests for troops, horses, ammunition, and food stuffs. His first report of the uprising came direct from the Governor of Bombay, rather than the central Indian government or the Home Government. In response, he sent large numbers of troops and horses. By the 22 September, he still had not received any direct communication from the Governor General of India and, feeling affronted at the lack of communication, suggests that he may have “gone too far” in his support of the Indian Government, and will henceforth “be cautious what other steps I take until further instructions reach me.”[1] Nevertheless, just two days later, he anticipates further Colonial Office instructions, by “gradually purchasing horses for the Indian Government” and expresses his intention to “continue to do so as rapidly as possible.” Despite the demand from India being only for 250 horses, Grey asserts his intention to “continue to act upon my own discretions, and ship so many horses as I can procure, until I think that the requirements of the public service in India are probably sufficiently met.”[2]

This virtual exuberance at the prospect of supporting the military effort in India is echoed in all the subsequent correspondence on the subject. In October, Grey reports the despatch of the Boscawen steam ship, with 500 men, plus officers and non-commissioned officers, and the simultaneous shipment of “trained artillery horses from the field batteries in this country…These horses and 250 additional men, with their due proportion of officers, shall be sent on to Calcutta in Her Majesty’s Steamer Megara at the same time the Boscawen sails.”[3] He likewise recounts how 92 officers and 1,743 men, sent from England, were diverted from their original destination in China to support the military in Calcutta.[4]

Grey appears to have taken a great deal of personal discretion in determining what support was necessary and to where it ought to be sent. He often exceeds the requests made of him, or offers provisions without provocation. Some of this might be attributed to inconsistent communications. Grey constantly complained that requests received from the Presidencies of India did not align with those sent by the Supreme Government of India or by the Home Government. He uses such communicational discrepancies to justify his own deviation from official instructions. At one point, he reports that at the same time that the Government of Bombay applied for two infantry regiments on the 23 September,

The Supreme Government of India, in communicating with this Government did not even ask for one Regiment. The instructions I had received from Her Majesty’s Government were to send one Regiment to Calcutta, and one Regiment to Ceylon, and there was a general authority in your despatch of the first of August to take, in conjunction with the authorities in India, such measures in regard to the movement of troops as the interests of the public service might require.[5]

It was not only troops that the Cape was asked to supply; as the Indian Uprising was being suppressed, the colony was also considered as a potential location to which ex-mutineers could be deported. Following the end of the Uprising, sending the King of Delhi to exile in the Cape Colony was debated. Grey eagerly proposed a plan in which the King would be sent to King William’s Town, the capital of British-occupied Xhosa territory named British Kaffraria, where he could be monitored, far from any chance of escape by sea and far from any influence in India. Slightly tangential to the primary point of this blog, but no less interesting for it, was the proposal made by Grey in relation to this proposed plan that “It would be better not to call upon the British Parliament to interfere in the matter, for the Legislature here will readily pass the necessary law upon the subject…moreover it is clearly right, in a colony possessing a representative legislature, with full legislative powers, that the interference of the British Parliament should be as infrequent and as little obtrusive as possible.”[6] This seems to contradict the general tone conveyed in many of Grey’s despatches related to troop disbursements, that the priorities of the Empire take precedence over the immediate needs of the colony. Rather here, he appears to be making a play for greater autonomy, distinguishing the Cape Colony as an independent colony with its own representative government, needless of imperial interference, even while pleading for greater investment on the grounds of its vulnerabilities.[7]


Domestic Cape Policy in 1857
Nevertheless, from the majority of Grey’s missives it is clear that the picture he painted for the Home Government was one of a colony willing to sacrifice its own security for that of another. Emphasising the benevolence and generosity displayed by the Cape colonial government, Grey points out that at the same time that they were supplying India with a larger force than had been asked for, the Cape “was embroiled in its own crisis with the native tribes.”

In highlighting the excessive amount of support offered to the Indian Government he likewise emphasises the resulting weakness of his own Cape force. Often, it is clear that such statements are made in the hopes of acquiring further financial and military support from the Home Government. In one despatch sent to request reinforcements from England, Grey reports,

We have crippled the artillery here by sending every horse from our field batteries, that we have temporarily almost destroyed the Cape Corps by taking two hundred of the best horses from that force, and this has been done with 70,000 barbarians within our Colonial Borders, exclusive of those in Kaffraria and the neighbouring states.[8]

Specifically, Grey was making reference to a series of cattle raids in British Kaffraria, mounted by abaThembu from across the northeastern border. In relation to many such conflicts, Grey highlights the weakness of the colonial army, as a result of the Indian Uprising, often making note of the increased role of volunteer and police forces in securing reputedly dangerous colonial borders. In October 1857, Grey boasted that with only the Mounted Police and Burgher Forces – a primarily volunteer group – a number of border chiefs were captured and convicted of cattle stealing. He reports:

I then caused him [the abaThembu regent Fadana] to be suddenly fallen upon by the Mounted Police and Burgher Forces, who, under the command of Commander Currie, performed this service with the utmost gallantry, discretion, and activity, and the result was, as you will find from the enclosed despatches, that Fadanna’s [sic] party were routed, in a great measure destroyed, and that the robber Chief, and his ally…were both captured.[9]

Grey likewise states his intention to further augment that Mounted Police Force with volunteers, so as to “get it into the highest state of efficiency; and that if we were compelled to enter upon any active military operations against the Native Tribes, such operations should be principally carried on by rapid movements of the Border Mounted Forces.”[10] He further touts the importance of the colony being “entirely under the control of the Government, in order that we may efficiently assist our Indian Empire.”[11]

Nevertheless, a common theme in many of the despatches leaving the Cape was one of security threats caused by the generous role played by the colony in supporting the Indian Government. In the context of the ongoing Xhosa Cattle Killing episode (1856-7) the ability of the colonial government to sufficiently suppress disturbances was likewise frequently spoken of.[12] In February 1858, four Xhosa chiefs imprisoned in the belief that they were conspiring to challenge the colonial government during the Cattle Killing, escaped from the prison at King William’s Town. The reports of this escape were considered all the more troubling as those chiefs, upon reunion with their people, were rumoured to be inciting violence against the British by invoking the Indian Uprising. In a despatch of 11 February, Grey reported to the Colonial Office the rumours of the escaped chiefs that had been reaching his office:

That all the troops had gone to India from England, but were so overpowered by the Indians that all the English troops had left this country for the purpose of assisting their countrymen. That all the horses had been shipped at East London, also the guns, and that the troops had embarked at Port Elizabeth and Cape Town. That it was heard with delight that the Indians are a black race with short hair, and very like the Kaffirs. That it is to be regretted that, whilst their race is overpowering the English in India, the Kaffirs are at the present moment unable to follow up the success, and fall upon the English in this country, and that it was known to his people that Krili [Sarhili] is looking forward to an opportunity and is devising plans for bringing on a war.[13]


“We maintain not a Garrison, but rather an Army”
You may have noticed at this point that discussion of the Cape Colony’s contributions have been largely focused on Sir George Grey and his reports thereon. There is a reason for this: accounts sourced from his despatches do not seem to match numbers found in official reports of the War Department and Colonial Office. Grey paints a comprehensive picture of a colony selflessly denuding itself of military resources to support the imperial agenda, all while battling frontier incursions from the inside. Meanwhile, the Home Government sees a very different picture: one of a colony receiving far more than their fair share of imperial resources and consuming a significant majority of available military funding.

The first suggestion that the Colonial Office was aware of the true size of the resources held by the Cape Colony is in November 1857, when the Secretary of State, Henry Labouchere, urges Grey to donate a portion of what they have to the effort in India.

You are fully apprised of the desire of H.M.’s Government that you should avail yourself of the circumstance of so large a number of troops being assembled in the British Provinces of South Africa to render the utmost assistance…to the Indian Administration, and pray that you will have been able to despatch considerable additional services to that Country, where seasoned Troops will be especially valuable.[14]

Keep in mind, that at this point Grey had, for some months, already been sending reports of vast exports of troops, horses, and other military resources to India, as well as complaining of the effect this had on the state of security in the Cape. It begs the question, therefore, why the Colonial Office would feel the need to encourage greater distribution of resources? Nevertheless, there seems to be little further reference made to any discrepancy until the following year, when the Indian Uprising was over.

A confidential report examining military expenditure in the colonies was circulated by the War Office in 1859, looking directly at the distribution of military resources across the Empire between March 1857 and March 1858. This did not include India because the East India Company still maintained its own force, despite in 1857 having received reinforcements from the general imperial army. In this report particular note was made of inequality among the colonies, both with regard to the amount of support they received from the Home Government, and the amount they themselves contributed toward their own defence. For example, while the colony of Victoria paid, in 1857-58, roughly two-thirds of its own ordinary military expenditure, Canada paid only one-fifth, and the colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Tasmania, and New Zealand all contributed nothing. The most stark anomaly, however, related to the Cape. The report of the War Office made special note of,

The drain on British resources which has resulted from our undertaking the defence of this colony, and to the inadequacy of the benefits resulting to British interests. As affording a field of emigration, a supply of our wants, or a market for our produce, our connection with the colony has not been, comparatively speaking, of any considerable advantage to us; in fact, the only direct object of Imperial concern, is the use of the road steads at Table and Simon’s Bays.[15]

While Sir George Grey repeatedly bemoaned the dearth of military support in the Cape Colony in 1857, the report of the War Office actually suggests that for that year the Imperial government had at the Cape, including the German Legion, an army of 10,759 regular troops, costing them a total of £830,687, equal to more than one-fifth the military expenditure across the entirety of the Empire.[16]


A chart noting the relative military investment in the Cape Colony, in relation to its contributions toward the Empire and similar figures for all other colonies. Source: Thomas Frederick Elliot. Memorandum, Colonial Office, 28 January 1860

A chart noting the relative military investment in the Cape Colony, in relation to its contributions toward the Empire and similar figures for all other colonies.
Source: Thomas Frederick Elliot. Memorandum, Colonial Office, 28 January 1860


In a minute thereon, Thomas Frederick Elliot of the Colonial Office reports that, in addition to those numbers, the Home Government additionally gave the Cape Colony a grant of £40,000 “for civilising the Kaffirs and averting disputes with the Natives.”[17] Elliot further complains, “It is true that these efforts have given us the satisfaction of being able to say that we have not had a Kaffir War, but nine or ten thousand troops constitute such an army as England seldom has to spare for less favoured spots.”

Omitting the Mediterranean garrisons, which Elliot qualifies as a “special class” he reckons that the Cape Colony received nearly a third of the direct military expenditure of the British Imperial Government in 1857-58.

Meanwhile, it is also worth noting that Grey repeatedly reported his use of civilians to maintain a volunteer and police force in lieu of military support. While he commended their effectiveness as a means of securing the colony against ‘native’ incursions apparently, in England, opinions differed somewhat. In fact, the only comment made in favour of retaining the exceptionally large garrison in the Cape was that, though “the Colonists would be willing enough to undertake their own protection provided that they might deal with the Kaffirs as they themselves consider best…this would entail a mode of warfare which would not be tolerated by public opinion in England.”[18]

Ultimately, it would appear that while the Cape Colony certainly contributed significantly toward efforts at putting down the uprising in India, reports relating to the detrimental effect on colonial security may have been exaggerated. Rather, it seems as though Grey might have utilised the Indian Uprising, as a means of overstating the colony’s insecurities so as to gain greater military and financial support for his wars against Africans. For the Home Government, while dismayed at the clear anomaly in how their resources had been spent, the solution was still unclear. Elliot himself sums up his minute thusly:

So long as British authority restrains the settlers from defending themselves in their own way, it is bound to find some efficient substitute. The result has been to produce an excessive drain of British resources for a single Colony; the expenditure, as above shown, is enormous, and it is not likely ever to be materially reduced except by a radical change of policy. Such a change would relieve this country from a heavy burden, and, so far as concerns the demands both for men and money, would be a palpable gain. Whether it would be opposed to any just claims of philanthropy, or to the general duties of the Sovereign States towards their subjects, and whether also it would be irreconcilable with public opinion, are questions of a different kind, lying beyond our province. They can only be determined by Statesmen engaged in the actual conduct of affairs.[19]

Sir George Grey was ultimately recalled from office in 1859, in consequence of the Home Government finally acknowledging the extent of the discrepancy between his protestations of resource starvation on the one hand, and the dawning recognition of the disproportionate expense that he incurred for little strategic or economic gain on the other. Yet historians have not yet noted how important the Indian Uprising was for both Grey’s and the Cape’s fate: it provided the prompt for Grey finally overstepping the mark, protesting rather too loudly both a self-sacrifice and a self-pity that drew newly critical attention.

Kate Boehme


[1] National Archives (NA), Cape Colony Despatches 1 Sept – 30 Nov 1857, Letter from Sir George Grey to Henry Labouchere, 22 September 1857.
[2] NA, Cape Colony Despatches 1 Sept – 30 Nov 1857, Letter from Sir George Grey to Henry Labouchere, 24 September 1857.
[3] NA, Cape Colony Despatches 1 Sept – 30 Nov 1857, Letter from Sir George Grey to Henry Labouchere, 3 October 1857.
[4] NA, Cape Colony Despatches 1 Sept – 30 Nov 1857, Letter from Sir George Grey to Henry Labouchere, 2 November 1857.
[5] NA, Cape Colony Despatches 1 Sept – 30 Nov 1857, Letter from Sir George Grey to Henry Labouchere, 24 September 1857.
[6] NA, Cape Colony Despatches 1 Sept – 30 Nov 1857, Letter from Sir George Grey to Henry Labouchere, No.304, 11 November 1857.
[7] On Grey’s imperial politics at large, see Alan Lester, ‘Settler Colonialism, George Grey and the Politics of Ethnography’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 34, 3, 2016, 492–507.
[8] NA, Cape Colony Despatches 1 Sept – 30 Nov 1857, Letter from Sir George Grey to Henry Labouchere, 2 November 1857.
[9] NA, Cape Colony Despatches 1 Sept – 30 Nov 1857, Letter from Sir George Grey to Henry Labouchere, 3 October 1857.
[10] NA, Cape Colony Despatches 1 Sept – 30 Nov 1857, Letter from Sir George Grey to Henry Labouchere, No. 134, 27 August 1857.
[11] Sir George Grey to Henry Labouchere, 3 October 1857.
[12] See Jeff Peires, The Dead Will Arise: Nongqawuse and the Great Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement of 1856-7, Raven, 1989.
[13] NA, Cape Colony Despatches 1 Jan – 31 May 1858, Letter from Sir George Grey to Henry Labouchere, No.9, 11 February 1858.
[14] NA, Cape Colony Despatches 1 Sept – 30 Nov 1857, Letter from Henry Labouchere to Sir George Grey, 27 November 1857.
[15] NA, Military Expenditure in the Colonies, War Office, 1859.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Thomas Frederick Elliot. Memorandum, Colonial Office, 28 January 1860.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.

Posted in 1857, Colonial Office, Communication, Military

1857: Managing imperial crisis

In our last blog, we looked at some of the ways in which the events of 1857 played out in one nodal point of the network of empire: how colonial administrators, as they went about the business of moving goods, people and capital around that network, coped with new stresses and anxieties, assessed risk, and strategized against potential anti-colonial resistance. In the management of education and language policy in Mauritius, we saw how these process were linked with the regimes of knowledge, acculturation and pedagogy through which imperial power was reproduced. Over the past couple fo months, as we’ve been going through the 1857 materials in the records of the East India Company and the Colonial Office, we’ve begun to get a clearer picture of the year’s events as an interlinked series of upheavals whose ramifications reached through every part of the global network of imperial governance.

The most consequential event of the year, of course, was the Indian Uprising. But at the same time but there was also a serious conflict in Persia, the beginning of the Second Opium War in China, and the aftermath of the unrest, famine and millenarianism of the Great Xhosa Cattle Killing in the Cape. The reverberations of the Crimean War and the ongoing continental anxiety over what would become known as the Eastern Question were still conditioning the mood around the Black Sea, the Middle East and Central Asia. Meanwhile, as these matters were aligning global affairs into ever-more-intricate interrelationships, the means by which people and information travelled were in constant development. Telegraphs were being laid in India and across Europe, and the first transcontinental link had just crossed the Atlantic; the railway boom of the 1830s and 40s in Europe had been extended to India, with a flurry of projects beginning to take shape and lines already being built; and steamship technology continued to increase in speed and efficiency, while the infrastructures which supported it – coaling stations, navigation aids, engineering base, deepwater ports – grew apace.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been focusing on the records of the Political and Secret Committee of the East India Company. This committee dealt, as its name implied, with matters which could not necessarily be broadcast publicly: matters of diplomacy, warfare, geostrategy, political negotiations and future policy. The Uprising, and the wider crisis of 1857, throw into sharp relief the means by which the empire was governed; the archive of the Political and Secret Committee (hereinafter P&S) provides some potent insights into the inner workings of that system of governance, and the contradictions and tensions in its modes of crisis response, policy-making, and the organisation of geostrategic action at a distance.

The Uprising’s first appearance in the archive (assuming, for simplicity’s sake, that we designate the outbreak of open violence in the Bengal cantonments as the beginning of the Uprising proper) is in the P&S committee’s minutes for the 29th of June 1857. Amongst other communications received, the day’s minutes note a “telegraphic message”, numbered 692 (meaning that it was the 692nd such received in 1857), relating “Disturbances in the Bengal Army”. [fig. 1]


Fig 1. East India Company Political & Secret Committee Minutes, 29th June 1857. IOR L/PS/1/12 f.145v

It’s worth divesting the telegraph, here, of the aura of simultaneity and instant communication with which we now surround it: the dispatch itself was dated in Bombay on the 27th of May, a month and two days before its arrival in London, and the first mutiny had occurred at Meerut on 10th of May. In 1857, information still couldn’t travel that much faster than people: telegraphs from India had to be carried by mail steamer from Bombay or Karachi to Suez, transported over the isthmus to Alexandria, and then telegraphed again from either Trieste or Marseilles. Letters travelled via Malta, then either by train from Marseilles or through Gibraltar to the port of Southampton. Later in the Uprising, telegraph lines across India were destroyed by Indian troops, who burned the poles for firewood and, according to some accounts, cut the wires into slugs for ammunition. (There is also at least one recorded incident of a railway locomotive being stoned by an angry crowd: to what extent the two can be linked as instances of both real and symbolic violence against the technologies of imperial communication and control is, let’s say, beyond the scope of this blog.)

The Uprising and its ramifications spread quickly within a field of action, and a web of political and social connections, that was already global in scope. This point is nicely illustrated by a P&S meeting minute from only five weeks later, on August 4th [Fig. 2]:


Fig 2. Political and Secret Committee minutes, 4th August 1857. IOR L/PS/1/12, f.148v

Here, a bundle of dispatches has been received through Marseilles. Besides the mutinies of Indian and Nepalese regiments, there are reports of disturbances in Broach (Bharuch, Gujarat), reports of the imprisonment of the Nawab of Awadh, and the death of another prince. In Persia, peace terms are being ratified after the Anglo-Persian War, fought to establish the city of Herat under de facto British control (and, in the Persian case, to get it back); a separate dispatch from Sir James Outram, leader of the expeditionary force and still in the Gulf, confirms the dispatch of troops from Bushehr. The Governor of Ceylon, likewise, has been asked to contribute regiments for putting down the mutiny.

In the most immediate sense, the Uprising didn’t elicit a particularly subtle response. Whatever the logistical and diplomatic complexities of what followed, the general aim remained obvious and brutally simple: to concentrate the empire’s maximum capacity for violence on suppressing anti-colonial resistance and preventing its spread. For that, the main challenge was that of getting as many troops as possible to Northern India, as fast as it could be done.

But how that policy, and others, got made illuminates the extent to which power was networked just as much in the imperial centre as in the global web of empire. The often complex systems of bureaucratic routine, precedence, protocol, subordination, negotiation and duplication through which policy was formed are on full and rich display in the P&S Committee’s correspondence with other government departments, collected in the India Office Records as the ‘P&S Home Correspondence’ (IOR L/PS/3; the volumes for 1857 are L/PS/3/54-56).

The first item in this series, as far as the Uprising is concerned, is a request to the Board of Control that the P&S Committee be allowed to share the first telegram (the same one noted in the Fig. 1) with the Court of Directors. The Board, by this point, was exercising control not just over policy but over the internal informational security of the company itself. The nature of Crown Government capture of Company policy by 1857 – how complete it was, what the significant moments of extension were – is a matter of some debate, but it’s worth noting here that the Government had very handily extended a kind of sovereignty over information. Messages that passed between Company servants in India and those in London belonged, in a sense, to the Government, and the Company only enjoyed access to them on the Government’s sufferance. Throughout the Uprising, the communicational networks of the Company ran at full tilt: the collections in the India Office Records series of “Mutiny Enclosures” (largely assembled for fortnightly dispatches by the Suez mail steamer by the unfailing efforts of Henry Lacon Anderson, the chief secretary to the Presidency of Bombay) contain a wealth of military reports, returns, judicial papers, maps, intelligence digests and narratives. In every case, however, only the Board and the P&S Committee had automatic right of access to this material, and applications to share any information with the Court of Directors were frequently refused – as was the case, for example, for the dispatches from Bombay listed in Fig. 2.

The Home Correspondence also points up the extent to which the Board was the effective channel of communication with the Company and all other government offices. At first glance, the series looks like a record of communication in all directions between the Committee, the Court and Chairs of the Company, the Board, the Foreign Office, the Colonial Office, the War Office and the Admiralty.


Fig 3. Index page to Political & Secret Home Correspondence, September 1857. IOR L/PS/3/56, f.5r. Featuring letters between Sir George Clerk and Robert Vernon-Smith MP (Board of Control) and Sir James Cosmo Melvill (Secretary to the East India Company) and the Company’s Chairs, Edmund Hammond and Lord Shelburne (Foreign Office), Lord Panmure and Henry Knight Storks at the War Office, and W.A. White, HM Consul in Warsaw.

For the most part, however, what it actually represents is the correspondence between the Board and all these agencies, with no communication between them except through the Board; except through the Board, the Committee, and indeed the Court and Chairs of the Company, can’t meaningfully communicate with anyone. Not only that: except for the correspondence between the Committee and the Board, everything else here is a copy of an original which the Board holds: the Company itself is reduced to a largely spectatorial role, as if cc’d into an email thread in which they are powerless to intervene directly. The impression the series as a whole gives to the modern historian is of something like a ringside view of policymaking, curated for the benefit of a body whose control of policy was so mediated, policed and deliberately attenuated as to be reduced largely to an advisory function, even while its most vital interests are at stake.

Much of the most interesting correspondence is between the Board and the Foreign Office. For instance: the Court wished, with the Board’s concurrence, to send advance parties of officers and men from cavalry regiments through Suez, so that they could arrive in India before the bulk of their regiments – which were travelling via the Cape – and have their establishment prepared for immediate action when they arrived in India. Soldiers in uniform, even those of friendly powers, were not allowed across Egypt, so the soldiers had to travel in ‘mufti’. This necessitated letters under flying seal to both Company agents and consular staff in Suez and Alexandria, letters to shipping companies warning them of the plans, and a flurry of correspondence with Viscount Stratford de Redcliffe, the experienced diplomat serving as ambassador to the Porte, and Major John Green, the (apparently very capable) Acting Vice Consul in Alexandria, relaying the progress of a complex and delicate diplomatic dance between the Ottoman court, the Egyptian Pasha, and the somewhat precarious British presence. Meanwhile, consuls in Baghdad and Aleppo were being briefed to give all possible assistance to Company and Army agents trying to source horses for Indian service, bypassing the Parsi horsetrading families of Western India.

The scramble to formulate policy and keep a hold on the global situation means that, among many other concerns, we find Foreign Office staff digging up consular reports from the end of the Crimean War assessing whether it would be possible to recruit the Kurds as irregular cavalry against Persian and Russian opportunism; meanwhile, the Consul in Aleppo sends a series of letters advising that an Arab militia could easily be raised. The Foreign Office forwards letters and carefully filleted digests of intelligence from St Petersburg, including reports of quite abstruse conversations in which hidden meanings might have been intended, and translations of needlingly ambivalent commentary from the Northern Bee (Severnaya Pchela), the semi-official newspaper that was commonly known to be a mouthpiece for the Third Section, the Tsarist secret police. From the Embassy in Washington, there’s a report of an Irish Republican meeting in New York, in solidarity with the rebels – at which it was debated whether Republican activist (and escapee from Van Diemen’s Land) John Mitchel would give his support, since as a fervent anti-abolitionist it was supposed he could not support a non-white insurrection against a white proprietory class; enclosed with the clipping is Mitchel’s almost offensively evasive letter to the editor in reply. Outside of the Foreign Office correspondence, there is a huge volume of correspondence with the War Office, Admiralty and Colonial Office about the movement of troops around the world, in a complex shuffle revealing the insecurities of governors around the empire. There is a long and ongoing correspondence with the Admiralty about navigational infrastructure, particularly that relating to the Red Sea, a sea route whose importance the febrile communicational activity of the Uprising is throwing into stark relief; there is correspondence with Richard Burton, the Arabist and translator of Omar Khayyām, about whether to establish British bases in the Horn of Africa; and a fraught exchange with a Liverpudlian guano prospecting firm over a ban on using Arab labourers on the Khuriya Muriya Islands near Aden.

So what’s to be learned from this? Well, as ever in our blog, conclusions are provisional. We’re gathering what we hope will be the materials of a new history of imperial governance; this blog is about the journey rather than the destination. But what we’ve found so far from the records of 1857 is, we think, further evidence of the simultaneity of imperial governance, across multiple modalities of rule, constitutional arrangements, and administrative agencies; of its global reach, its interrelatedness, and of officials’ keen awareness of that interrelatedness; and of some of its contradictions as it changed over time, was contested and pulled in different directions. What we get from the Political and Secret Home Correspondence is an idiosyncratic, and in some ways unexpectedly illuminating, view of a major imperial crisis as it both drew on a global system of power and helped to induce the conditions by which it would be further entrenched.

Peter Mitchell

Posted in 1857, Communication, India Office