Under Pressure: steamships, global power and communications, and the East India Company — Part 2

Infrastructure, engineering, incidents and accidents

In the last blog, I discussed how steam navigation promised to change the East India Company’s ways of operating – its trade and communicational networks, its geostrategic presence, and its procedures of government and administration – and gave, I hope, a small impression of how the Company in London responded in terms of policymaking.

In this one, I want to give an impression of the demands that the new technology placed on the Company – infrastructural, human, resource, and logistical – and how the Company attempted to deal with them, on a day-by-day and week-by-week basis, over the short period of our January-March 1838 snapshot.

The Company, as we’ve seen, had committed to steam; a watered-down version of the Bentinck committee’s plan for the Indian Navy had been accepted, a new steam-savvy Superintendent was to be installed, and the building of new steam vessels not only assented to, but given the status of official policy. The adaptation to steam is already well underway; the problem, much of the time, is how to go about it.

The Company lacks neither advice nor encouragement on this score. In January alone, they receive a petition from a group of concerned citizens of Madras, requesting that the project of regular steam navigation through the Red Sea be carried forward as a matter of urgency; twelve copies of a pamphlet “On Steam Communication to India by the Cape of Good Hope”, from the chairman of the India Steam Ship Company, the first of several unsolicited publications and treatises on steam navigation to arrive during our three-month period; an offer from a Glasgow shipbuilder to build and refit steamers from the Company’s use, again one of many; a proposal from an employee at Alexandria (an expert on steam, who had appeared before the Bentinck committee) for a regular steam tug shuttle between Cairo and Alexandria, plus a system of horse-drawn cars for rapid transit from there to Suez; and a letter from a Mr C. Barwell Coles, informing the court that he has a patent pending on a revolutionary new means for propelling ships, without steam and in all weathers, by means of a large pendulum.

Meanwhile, early 1838 finds the Company scrambling to assemble an infrastructure to support the lines of steamship communication that are beginning to thread through its global shipping network. Steam power requires precision engineering, raw materials, a high level of human expertise: in the 1830s, all of these things were not only in short supply, but largely concentrated in Western Europe. If you wanted someone to build or repair a steamship in Bombay or Calcutta, you needed to send them out from Liverpool or Glasgow; the coal shipped out to Mocha, Madeira and Bombay was invariably mined in South Wales or Northumberland.

Coal is a particularly pressing issue. Coaling stations have recently been established at the Cape, at Madeira, at Alexandria and Suez, and at Mocha and Cosseir (Al-Qusayr) on the Red Sea. There is still debate about which harbours would be best placed to host depots on the Red Sea route, an area which presents not only difficult navigational conditions but the prospect of establishing stations in areas where local politics are somewhat beyond the reach of the Company’s influence and negotiations can be difficult. The Company’s Agent at Alexandra, Col. Patrick Campbell – who we last saw arranging escorts of janissaries for dispatches crossing the Suez isthmus – is kept busy negotiating with the local Pasha for the use of the buildings in Cosseir (Al-Qusayr) where the coal is to be kept; meanwhile, the French are requesting the use of the coal in the Madeira depot for their own steamships, an issue on which the Court and its committees are struggling to formulate a consistent policy.

The Red Sea: coaling depots, agencies, and sea routres

The Red Sea: coaling depots, agencies, and sea routes

The network of supply is beset by teething problems: the supply at Mocha turns out to be inadequate, and rather than send a semi-laden coaler the Company have to buy more than they intended; the Agent at Madeira forwards complaints from a shipowner about the damage done to trade by his ship having to wait a day for coaling, for which he demands compensation; and there are problems with unloading at the Cape. At home, each weekly or twice-weekly court discusses arrangements for putting out tenders for the supply and transportation of the coal itself, negotiating with the Board the conditions under which tenders and contracts can be drawn up, and answering incoming offers, many of them unsolicited. The main supply route is Llanelli to Bombay, and thence back East to the Red Sea; interestingly, the only suggestion that anyone might be thinking of prospecting for coal in India comes in a Court reply, in February, to a letter they’d received several months earlier from a Lt John Auchterlony in Madras. Auchterlony proposes to take some of the miner and sapper cadets at the Company’s military seminary at Chatham to the coal and copper districts of England to learn about mining and resource extraction. The Court rejects this plan, but assures him that it will ask the Madras Government if they can use him in an advisory capacity for mineral exploration. The sense is that Auchterlony is merely trying his luck; but the lack of any other indication that the Company might be interested in sourcing coal and metals closer to where they are needed does seem strange.

The absence outside Europe of the human capital of skills and expertise, and the plant required to effect meaningful maintenance of steam vessels, becomes apparent in December when the Berenice, newly assigned to share the Red Sea packet run with the Atalanta, breaks a paddle-wheel shaft. For the entirety of our three-month period she is laid up in Suez while the Company arranges repairs, resupplies, and the host of logistical problems that a large crippled steamship in a foreign port might cause. The range and volume of correspondence to and from the Court is impressive: the crew have to be accommodated and then given passage back to England, the doctor who attended them on the voyage “given some requital”, and the port authorities paid off. Col. Campbell appears to be in constant motion between Suez, Cairo and Alexandria, and at some points is writing three letters a day to the Court. The Admiralty, who have been examining the log, return it with thanks. John Laird (of the engineers and shipbuilders Laird’s of Birkenhead) has examined the damaged shaft, and sends a thorough analysis supported by affidavits from, the stoker and engineer present when the accident occurred. A Captain Grant, who brought the damaged shaft back to England with him, is demanding passage money again, and the court reiterate their refusal. Commander Lowe, who had been in charge of the Berenice, submits a full formal report, and says that although he is sure the repairs can take place in Egypt, they will take at least five or six weeks.

The actual repair is a feat of logistics, in which engineers in England fix a ship in the Red Sea. First, Lowe has moulds made of the parts of the engine affected, which are sent back to England with Waghorn (mentioned in our previous blog as packet agent in Alexandria – and also, apparently, well-informed about steam navigation). On arrival, these are forwarded “with immediate effect” to Napier’s engineering yard in Glasgow, where the Berenice was built. Once Board approval has been obtained (this is done quickly, in mid-February), Napier can be paid to produce new parts, which are then transported, along with senior engineers, out to Egypt for fitting.

In the midst of this storm of correspondence, however, is a sign that the Court have begun to appreciate the problems of lacking a human and technological infrastructure. They arrange to the have the mould of the engine parts duplicated in Egypt, and the copies sent out to Bombay, in the hope that future repairs might be dealt with there. If the Company had been aware before of the need for technical knowledge and resources to be available in the theatres of operation of their new ships, the Berenice affair must have brought the lesson home with considerable force.

So what can we learn from all this? Personally, I’m not sure – and a blog probably isn’t the best place to try to come to considered conclusions on raw archival data. But it’s certainly instructive to see the administrative work that made all these things happen, and watch a governmental structure begin to adapt itself to conditions which were changing faster than it could manage. As ever, reading the records of dissents and debates, inter-departmental rivalry and suspicion, and fraught exchanges between parties equally anxious about their lack of information, can give us a vivid sense of how much of the formation of policy and the practice of colonial power is attended at ground level by compromise, improvisation, bickering, boredom and the white noise of bureaucratic work. There’s also, in this case, an impression to be gained of what it looks like when an immensely powerful organisation meets a genuinely disruptive technology.

But if there’s a sense in these records that the advent of steam has thrown the Company into something of a panic, it’s worth noting that over a longer scale the transition looks very successful indeed. The Indian Navy was not renamed; by 1840, the Company was establishing an unimaginably lucrative Chinese trade by the expedient of sailing up inland rivers and demonstrating a capacity for overwhelming violence, helping to pioneer the new imperial playbook of gunboat diplomacy. However chaotic or even comic colonial power can look at its centre when studied closely, the global work of violence, appropriation and exploitation carried on with astonishing success. What studying these archives on a granular scale allows us to see is the energy of work and debate behind apparently smooth and successful transitions, and the ways in which banal bureaucratic decisions, technological innovation and engineering problem-solving in certain networked sites all facilitated violent imperialism at a distance.


Posted in 1838, India Office, Technology

Under Pressure: steamships, global power and communications, and the East India Company — Part 1

One of the advantages of what we’re doing on this project is that we get to see how large-scale shifts in colonial governmentality played out in the daily business of the offices at the nominal centre of empire. In the circulation of documents and the rituals of administrative work, it’s sometimes possible to discern some of the processes of adaptation, improvisation and contention through which the imperial project continually remade itself, being played out in ‘real time’. In records of the East India Company during our first ‘snapshot’ of January-March 1838 (see our first blog for why it is we’re doing this in the first place), I’ve been particularly fascinated with the changes occurring in relation to steam navigation, and the Company’s attempts to adapt to and take advantage of this emergent technology in remaking the conditions of global power. In the next two blog-posts, I’ll be exploring some of the things I’ve found, and wondering how they fit into larger narratives of technology and empire.

“Conducted separately and without intermixture”: imperial and administrative contexts

In February 1838, the Court of Directors of the East India Company (with the ever-watchful Board of Control’s permission) issued a circular to all its agencies:

“It being desirable that our correspondence with the several governments in India upon Marine subjects or on Matters in any wise connected with Steam Vessels and their Establishment and Engines, with Steam Communications between India and England, with river or Sea Steam Navigation in general, and with the Master Attendants’ Departments or Dock Yards, should be conducted separately and without intermixture with other Departments as at present, we direct that all such subjects be addressed to us in future in the [Marine] ‘Department’ and that your Consultations and Proceedings on such matters be recorded in that Department.”

Essentially, the Company had just opened a new department: alongside its Military, Judicial, Revenue, Home, Ecclesiastical, and Political Departments, there was now one that dealt specifically with marine matters, and especially with steam.

Within the company, a department was not so much a physical space as a method for partitioning administrative workflows and defining policy areas. All official correspondence between England and India is classified by the agency concerned (from amongst the Government of India in general, the three subsidiary Presidencies of Bengal/Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay, and other agencies such as prince of Wales Island, St Helena, or China), and numbered according to their order in the year: so this inaugural Marine circular, for example, is designated ‘Marine Department, India, No. 1 of 1838’. Matters to do with steam navigation would still be decided by the same committees and individuals at all points of the administrative network; what the formation of a new department really signifies is a taxonomic move, by which the Company and Board recognised that here was a thing that needed to be responded to in a discrete and co-ordinated way: a field for specialised policy formation, for the consolidation of administrative attention and the concentration of expertise.

The Company’s reasoning for doing this is fairly clear: the correspondence relating to steam navigation and its effects is quite staggering, both in range and volume. Reading through this small mountain of paperwork, you get a vivid sense of a large global organisation scrambling to formulate a response to a new technology and adapt to the ways in which it refigures the whole practice of global power. The formation of the Marine Department marks the moment at which the Company began to firm up its policy towards steam: it’s the product, if you like, of a moment of commitment.

If this is a story of governmental and commercial power structures being challenged by new technologies, and attempting to control them, it’s hardly a new one. It’s hard to avoid a Silicon Valley-esque lexicon of ‘disruption’ and ‘paradigm-shifting’ when writing about this kind of thing, and interrelations between technology and geostrategy have proved fertile ground for historians of subjects that go far beyond nineteenth-century empire. (Check out, for example, Alex Wallerstein’s brilliant Nuclear Secrecy blog, which explores the dense imbrications of science, politics and geostrategy that made the Cold War.) It’s easy, sometimes, to get hung up on the distinction between motives and means: which came first, the desire to do something or the technology with which to do it? But naval engineering hardly occurs in a political void, and a desire to sail up rivers and enforce trade or conquest by violence didn’t sit around for centuries waiting for a suitable technology to bring it into the geostrategic toolkit. Close study of how governments and administrative structures respond to technological change, the ways in which policy and practice are generated, and the problems of applying and adapting those practices, might help us to understand this complex interplay a bit better. In doing the kind of study we’re engaged in – short, discrete ‘snapshots’ of governmental work – it might be possible to get a fine-grained sense of how, in committee rooms and offices, in the administrative procedures and cultures of imperial government, the capillary interplay of technology and policy played out.

The Company was, of course, used to technological innovation in the matter of navigation – sail and shipbuilding were hardly static technologies, and in 1838 we also find the Court exercising some deliberation over the type of sail fabric the ships of the company’s fleet should be contracting for. But steam presented an unprecedented technological shift. It was still relatively new: the first commercially successful steamship had begun operating in 1807; the first regular commercial sea-crossing between England and Ireland in 1816, the first transatlantic crossing in 1819; and the first steamships in Asian waters, the Diana and the Pluto, were built at Kidderpore in 1823 and 1824. Almost as soon as they were built, Diana and Pluto were used in the First Burmese War of 1825, sailing troops up-river to Yangon. In the late 1830s, larger and more complex craft began to be specially built in Europe and sailed around the Cape for Indian service.

“An Establishment of efficient Sea-going Steam Vessels”: steam’s potentials, and the Company response

The effects of steam on the Company’s way of doing things, and the ways these show up in the archive, can be roughly divided into two columns: the things steam can do, and the things steam demands.

Steam propulsion offered speed, power, and consistency. Steamships were not only faster than sail; they weren’t dependent on favourable weather conditions or prevailing winds. The South-West Monsoon had severely limited travel from the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea towards Europe, enforcing a seasonal rhythm to trade and communication; steamships, with their ability to make way against prevailing winds (up to a certain point, at least), upended all this, promising a year-round service. This would have obvious effects on trade and military capacity, but the immediate change for the Company was communicational. Under sail, the time a letter took to travel between Calcutta and London could be anything up to four months – with, again, that seasonal issue of the monsoon making things more complicated. With four months each way, and the work of bureaucracy and implementation at either end, the cycle of administration – from making policy in London to hearing of its application, or from applying that policy in India to learning what the Court of Directors thought you should do next – was rarely shorter than a year. Aboard the Company’s brand-new steam cutter the Atalanta, the dispatches of March 7th, 1838 reached Bombay in a record 41 days, and Calcutta in 54. The usual route was through the Mediterranean, with French packet steamers from Marseilles to Malta, a mail steamer from Malta to Alexandria, and then a short overland hop to the Red Sea, where a Company steamer – in 1838 the Atalanta and the Berenice, paddle-wheel hybrid craft with sails and gunports – would take them onward into the Indian Ocean. With the transit time of information halved, and no longer so dependent on seasonal variation, the policy cycle could be shortened too: the obvious multiplier effects of faster ships on trade and communication applied to government, too.


The Company steam ship Berenice, 1837. Note the traditional gunports along the aft side. (William John Huggins, 1838. © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.)

The Company steam ship Berenice, built 1837. Note the traditional gunports along the aft side. (William John Huggins, 1838. © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.)

The records bear this out; in early 1838 the Company is palpably anxious about re-engineering its communicational networks, and its hunger for information generates an enormous correspondence. Frequent letters go out to Col. Patrick Campbell, the Agent in Alexandria. One of the major stresses of Campbell’s job is to manage a communicational bottleneck: most of the correspondence and many of the people passing between India and England have to cross the short isthmus between Alexandria and Suez. Campbell has to travel constantly between Cairo, Alexandria, and the Red Sea ports of the Gulf of Suez, reporting on the arrival and departure of the Malta steamer, arranging for janissaries to escort the mails over the isthmus, and answering the Company’s often rather plaintive enquiries as to how best to tweak the network for maximum efficiency. Should the Malta steamer, for example, run monthly, as now, or every four weeks? Campbell is non-committal, but a small policy dispute begins to blow up between the Court and Board of Control. The attention paid to the minutiae of how to make the network run as smoothly as possible is impressive: a delay of a day has to be explained.

Steam – and the iron hull technology with which it developed in tandem – also offered new ways of projecting geostrategic force. While the steamboat’s manoeuvrability and capacity for being pointed whichever way you wanted it to go made riverine navigation much easier, the structural efficiencies of iron hull construction made the river gunboat possible: steamboats could carry heavy ordinance and troops up shallow inland waterways.

'Diagram Elucidating the principle on which the Honble East India Company's Steam Vessel Atalanta is Rigged, Displaying the greatest spread of Canvas, with least resistance from Masts', 1836. The Atalanta and Berenice could function under sail, steam or both, depending on prevailing wind and conditions. (© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.)

‘Diagram Elucidating the principle on which the Honble East India Company’s Steam Vessel Atalanta is Rigged, Displaying the greatest spread of Canvas, with least resistance from Masts’ (1836). The Atalanta and Berenice could function under sail, steam or both, depending on prevailing wind and conditions. (© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.)

But if the Company was well aware in 1838 of the geostrategic potentials of iron-hulled steamboats and warships, they were also in possession of a private navy which was struggling with poor morale, poor organisation, and an existential uncertainty over its purpose and its future in the face of steam technology. In 1837, William Bentinck MP had called a Parliamentary Select Committee on the issue. Having heard amongst others the opinions of several Company servants, Bentinck recommended that the Indian Navy (IN) be reconstituted as the Indian Flotilla, constituted entirely of steam vessels, with an increased focus on river navigation, and brought for good measure under the supervision of the Admiralty. In January and February 1838, we find the Company preparing a major reorganisation. Sir Charles Malcolm, Superintendent of the IN, is to be replaced by Capt. Robert Oliver, the latter having spent his career so far in the Royal Navy and being – unlike Malcolm – well-versed in steam technology. This is a popular move: although Court deliberations and dissents evince some disagreement about the choice of officer, there is no resistance to the idea that, if the Court wishes the IN to avoid being absorbed by the superior RN, they will have to catch up with their technological savvy. Steam vessels are not to entirely replace steam – as several member of the Court and the Indian establishment point out, entirely getting rid of a fleet of sailing ships seems a rash move – but a concerted push will be made to modernise the fleet. Here, as elsewhere, the records betray a certain sensitivity in the Company’s sense of precedence. In the constant back-and-forth over dispatches between the Court and the Board (nothing can go out to India until the Court has signed off on it, and they make frequent alterations), there is a short struggle over whether the IN is to be renamed the Indian Flotilla: eventually, and rather uncharacteristically, the Board concedes to the Court’s pride, and allows the name to stand as it is.

One Court dissent from February, by John Forbes, demonstrates some of the policy debates within the East India House. He objects strongly to the plans as they stand for slowly shedding the sail component of the fleet, reminding the Court that sailing-ships are essential in maritime surveying, and that should the Company end up offloading its sailing craft on the RN, they might leave themselves more open to an effective takeover should they ever want them back. He’s also critical of the Court’s sheer haste: he understands, he writes, the need to keep up with the French and the Russians, but suggests that a policy of crash modernisation with minimal budgetary constraints bears risks, especially given “a People [Indians] overloaded with taxation”: the sense is that the Company is threatened on the one side by a government which would welcome any opportunity to bring it to heel, and on the other by the potential resistance of its colonial subjects. He also needles at the Company’s characteristic meanness, wondering whether the failure to award a pension to Malcolm, and the reduction in pay for the post, might not lead to jobbery, place-hogging, and a blow to the Navy’s prestige – how, for example, is a high-ranking officer of the IN to fulfil his social obligations with a lower salary than that of his equivalent in the land forces?

Finally, the Court sends out a document that’s as close to a statement of policy as they’ll get. Marine Department (India) letter no. 5 of 1838 (dated 7th March, which rather appropriately makes it part of the Atalanta’s record-breakingly fast package of dispatches) sets out its stall with unusual force. Noting the sad state of the steam fleet at Calcutta, the Court writes:

“It is of the highest importance that your Govt. shall possess an Establishment of efficient Sea-going Steam Vessels, not only for the various ordinary purposes to which your present Steamers have been applied, but of a size and power to make them available as Transports and for the effectual Check of Piracy, and we are of opinion that three of such Vessels will not be more than adequate to your wants.”

To some extent, Forbes proves to have been right about the Company’s almost indecent haste. The Government’s last letter reported their having decided, on their own initiative, to commission a new vessel at Bombay and fit the engines of one of the moribund steamers into it. For an organisation engaged in a constant fight to assert its control over the Indian establishment, especially in budgetary matters, the Court’s assent to this is unusually even-tempered:

“Although these proceedings are contrary to our orders of February 1836 which forbad ‘the thorough repair of old Vessels or Engines or the building of new Vessels’ to be undertaken, we shall not under the peculiar and unforeseen circumstances in which you were placed by the simultaneous failure of all your Vessels, withhold our sanction … you must not however consider this relaxation of our positive injunction in respect of building and repairing Steam Vessels, as justifying any departure from them on future occasions.”

The letter they’re replying to is dated July 1837; the Company can hardly do much about a decision long since taken and money long since committed; withholding sanction from a fait accompli would only make plain the basic problem of asserting any real control that we’ve alluded to in previous posts. But in the weakness of the Court remonstrations, there may also be a consciousness that the urgency of building up steam capability outstrips the pace of imperial communications. It will be nearly a year between the Government informing the Court of their decision, and the Court sending back its half-reluctant sanction: even if steam itself speeds up this glacial policy cycle, the technology, and the ways in which other people are applying it, might move faster than that.
There’s also a fear that that pace of development might outstrip even the nimblest attempts to keep up:

“The repairs of Steam Vessels is at all time a questionable proceeding by reason of the continual improvements that are being made in the construction of such vessels which improvements are seldom, if ever, capable of being applied to old Hulls; and if the repairs are very extensive, it may be more economical in the end and certainly more advantageous to build a new Vessel than to alter and patch up an old one.”

Why spend money on outdated technology? Steam comes into focus here in its full disruptive force, as a technology which can’t really be bargained with but has to be committed to in order to maintain power. Besides, there are other things to focus on, like the usefulness of steamboats on rivers: anticipating “increased benefit from the extension of their Sphere of Employment” the Court wants to send steamboats up the Ganges past Allahabad, and eastward up the Brahmaputra into Assam. This is not only to project force and enhance the military control of territory, useful as that is in a period during which the Company is also aggressively pursuing the subordination of princely states, and issuing orders for the destruction of recalcitrant local feudatories’ forts: they have also calculated that they can make a saving of 12,000 rupees per annum by discontinuing military escorts for boats carrying treasure. With a proposed six more iron-hulled, shallow-draft river steamers, four new accommodation boats for soldiers, and some provision for training, the Company can use six sepoys and the river-gunboat’s concentration of firepower and stores to do the job of a much larger and logistically-challenging escort.

These aren’t all the documents to do with steam navigation that have turned up in our 1838 snapshot. So far I’ve only covered what steam offered: in Part 2, I’ll focus on the things it demanded – the infrastructure and human and technological capital it needed to extend a viable global reach – and how the Company dealt with the challenges of engineering such a huge technological shift in their operations.

Posted in 1838, Communication, India Office, Technology

Time to Throw Out the Balance Sheet

A bit of a departure from our standard project blog, this essay responds to the latest rehashing of the British Empire in the media. The Rhodes statue debate and a YouGov poll have both made the British Empire topical again. The Independent (Saturday, 23 Jan) has called for the Empire to be taught ‘warts and all’ so that the 44% of Britons who are proud of it have a little more to think about. This is no bad thing, but the problem comes when we identify the ‘warts.’ When the public are invited to consider imperial legacies, it is always in the form of pros and cons. The gifts that Britain gave the world versus the violence and destruction that came along with them. It is time to stop thinking about the Empire in these terms. And it’s not enough to call for schools to teach about the Empire’s bad bits as well as the good that it did, because it leads only to the same balance sheet approach. It’s the entire assumption that a balance sheet is meaningful that we need to throw out once and for all. Why? Because that approach always makes ‘benefits’ that worked very unevenly seem universal, while it reduces ‘costs’ to specific episodes rather than systematic features of imperial rule. The good was always structural, the bad always specific. Let’s take the ‘costs’ first:

Whenever we speak of the ‘bad’ side of empire, we want a list of atrocities. The events and episodes that were patently evil. The slave trade, the Indian famines, incidents of aggression like the Amritsar Massacre, the Boer War concentration camps and the suppression of Mau Mau. We’re told the British sometimes did some pretty nasty things. But the yardstick that most people use for atrocity is the Holocaust, followed perhaps by more recent genocides. It’s pretty clear that what the British did in their empire pales by comparison. Given that we’re talking about a 400 year period over much of the world, a few episodes of violence are only to be expected. In any case, the British often put right what they had done wrong, as with slavery, the most systematic ‘wrong,’ didn’t they? And sometimes they weren’t really to blame at all. If they made the Indian famines worse, they didn’t actually cause them. The debit side of the balance sheet always appears a little light in comparison with the regimes in world history that we know were evil.

Contrast that with the credit side. Here we are not talking about random acts of violence here and there, but rather systematic, enduring things. Railways, education systems, the rule of law, the English language and free trade. All forces of modernity, all benefitting the ruled as well as the rulers, all laying the foundations for our current global prosperity. Surely any sensible person would weigh these far more heavily than the odd episode of repression and exploitation? And don’t many Indians say that their country was better off under the Raj because of such things?

Well yes, many people, white and black, in Britain and the colonies, became much better off as a result of these British investments. Let’s look at each in turn. With railways male entrepreneurs from all communities and settlers growing produce on what had been Indigenous peoples’ land were able to access ports to supply consumers in Britain and elsewhere. Colonial governments were able to put down resistance easier. But people of colour generally weren’t allowed to travel on the railways on the same terms as white people. Gandhi’s political awakening came when he was thrown out of a Whites Only carriage on a South African railway. Indigenous farmers and Indian peasants were generally denied access altogether and women were often barred from travelling.

Government-run education systems varied hugely in time and place but were generally not extended to ‘natives.’ Their education was left to mission societies able to reach only a tiny proportion of them, mostly boys. One of the first things that some Indigenous elites did with their education was challenge white peoples’ entitlement to rule their countries.

The new ‘rule of law’ generally worked in favour of white settlers, elites and men. Even where explicitly racist legislation was avoided, proxies for race such as English language tests were used. These either imposed different standards on ‘native’ populations or kept Asian people out of settler colonies unless their labour was required. The wider adoption of English certainly facilitated more global conversations and business transactions among male elites. But it only served to heighten the exclusion of the majority, non-English speaking subjects and women, from access to the credit and political capital that flowed through Anglophone global networks.

Much the same could be said of free trade. It benefitted companies like Jardine Matheson (now a top 200 trans-national company registered in Bermuda for some reason), its stockholders in Britain and its Indian and Chinese trading partners. But one look at the purposes to which free trade could be put reminds us that the benefits were not universal. When British companies kicked up the biggest fuss about defending the principle of free trade in the nineteenth century, it wasn’t so that the restrictive practices of some oriental despot could be challenged, or so that slavery could be replaced by ‘legitimate commerce’ in Africa. It was because Jardine Matheson and others wanted to defend the right to sell smuggled opium to Chinese addicts, at a time when the Chinese authorities were trying to ban the trade. An argument in favour of free trade that Columbian and Afghan drug smugglers might struggle to try on today was used by the East India Company and its allies to punish the Qing empire with the loss of Hong Kong and the start of China’s ‘Century of Humiliation.’

So where does all this leave us with our balance sheets? It doesn’t mean that we simply have to shift the scales so as to weigh the two columns more evenly, or even to tip them decisively in favour of the debit column. Although it would be a good thing to recognise that ‘structural’ benefits were actually quite specific, and that specific ‘costs’ could actually be quite structural. What is the global racial humiliation of a colour bar if not structural? What it does mean is that the ‘benefits’ of empire and its ‘costs’ are too complex and too quotidian to be reduced to such a simplistic gauge. They are geographically uneven, so a calculation that empire was broadly of benefit in Britain does not mean that it was broadly of benefit universally. The ‘benefits’ were also uneven within each colony, no matter how nostalgic some Indians might be for the Raj. We never get to hear from most of those who suffered from empire, whereas those who did well tend to be more visible. Reducing empire to a costs/benefits analysis does no one any favours. Let’s tell lots of stories of empire, with different outcomes for different people in different places at different times, instead. And let’s appreciate that the way me might experience empire’s legacies in Britain may be very different from the way that other people experience them.

Professor Alan Lester

Posted in Legacies of Empire

Inside the Archives

The Colonial Office and India Office Records both hold evidence of centuries of imperial administrative practice. Yet, in both their structure and content they differ considerably. Three months into our research, these differences are becoming ever more apparent. This month we will consider the composition of the archives with which we are working, and what this indicates about how the two offices approached colonial administration.

The Colonial Office in London, headed up by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, governed dozens of colonies across the globe. From New South Wales and Ceylon to Malta and Lower Canada, each of these colonies had its own Governor, legislative body, and network of local officials and judicial representatives. The demands placed upon each colonial government varied wildly, and as a result in many ways the Empire was quite disparate. It was the Colonial Office that was responsible for overseeing all these administrations, unifying them under the general umbrella known as the British Empire.

The Colonial Office operated quite differently from the India Office; the latter, as we will see, chiefly liaised with one central governing body in India that was, in turn, responsible for overseeing all the myriad regional administrations in South Asia. This distinction is reflected in Colonial Office Records, which are vast and virtually impenetrable in places. Exploring the papers of the Colonial Office certainly presents its own challenges. Papers are organised by colony, in volumes identified as “Despatches,” “Entry Books,” “Offices,” and “Individuals” (though the exact labels used varies from colony to colony). While for some colonies, despatches include comments from colonial office administrators and official replies, in other cases a hunt through the entry books and interdepartmental letters is needed in order to identify how the colonial office dealt with certain issues. In some instances, notes and official replies seem to have simply disappeared. As a result, following a single issue from beginning to end (even when related to only one colony) can entail looking through half a dozen different volumes. To construct a global perspective on any such issues – as we are attempting to do here – that process must be repeated for each of the Colonial Office’s multitude of dependencies.

A recent discovery related to the Cape Colony records for 1838 perfectly represents the experience of working with the Colonial Office Records. To preface, I should note that the indexes for that year are organised by the date they were received into the Colonial Office, while the correspondence itself is arranged by date written. While the correspondence is often helpfully stamped with the reception date, to find letters processed in the Colonial Office between January and March 1838 – as is the aim of our project at present – one must view volumes from 1837 and from the beginning of 1838. While this has been a relatively simple process for most of the colonies’ records viewed thus far, examination of the Cape Colony (for which there are 16 volumes of original correspondence just for 1837!) revealed surprisingly few letters from the months in question. I began by examining the most obvious volumes first, from September-December 1837, which for other colonies in that general geographic vicinity had been fruitful. However, the correspondence from these months was apparently only received in April. I then checked earlier despatches from 1837, but the latest of them was received in December. Only a handful of letters seemed to have been received from the Cape during the whole of January, February, and March. To ensure nothing had been overlooked, a full 20 volumes were studied. But nothing more was found. I then sought an explanation for this mysterious deficit through parallel examination of entry books and interdepartmental correspondence; even there so little was written during those months that it was impossible to draw any conclusions regarding the anomaly. However, it was apparent that something had caused communication from the Cape to be delayed, resulting in a disruption to administrative discussion of the colony in London. The cause can be ascertained only if we move our scope well beyond the Colonial Office first to Government House in Cape Town and then some 600 miles beyond that, to the eastern frontier of the colony: a political dispute over policy regarding the Xhosa chiefdoms in 1836-1837, which resulted in the dismissal of Governor D’Urban. His successor only arriving in April 1838, and D’Urban knowing he would be leaving, apparently held correspondence with the Colonial Office, resulting in a sudden flood of letters arriving in London in April, once he was gone.

This incident demonstrates the parallel examination approach required in order to extract meaning from the vast amount of information flowing in and out of the Colonial Office. Global issues – or even logistical concerns that primarily affect the Colonial Office – have been organised into volumes by colony, so this process must be repeated many times over to gain any sense of scope.

Not to complain, as the organisation of the records is likely indicative of the administrative approach employed by the Colonial Office. As a central administrative hub, the Colonial Office likely needed to examine related minutia from across the empire under their purview, even for management of regional concerns. For example, control of convict populations in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land required adjustments in sentencing procedures in other colonies such as Lower Canada and Barbados. Communication with other offices regarding seemingly unrelated, often-banal, subjects such as shipping costs and construction contracts, all would have contributed toward decisions made on this issue.

Consequently, even the process of working in the Colonial Office Records, and understanding why documents were organised as they were, will play a key role in understanding how this one office attempted to govern almost an entire global empire.

The records of the East India Company are very different from those of the Colonial Office: the cultures, modes and methods of Company rule in 1838, however complicated by a succession of central government interventions since the 1770s, remain distinct and idiosyncratic. Moreover, the centre of imperial power had to manage not a network of widely scattered colonies, but a single Indian Government in Calcutta. The history of the Company’s overseas centres of administration, in fact, is one of increasing centralisation, in which London progressively reduced the number of administrative nodes with which it had to communicate. A widely-dispersed network of factories in the early seventeenth century became a more organised archipelago of presidencies, in which one main factory would control several subsidiary ones: Java for the East Indies and South-East Asia, Calcutta for Bengal, Bombay and Madras for their respective portions of the subcontinent. By the early nineteenth century, the process of subordination had led to Bombay and Madras being ruled, more or less, by Calcutta.

At the same time, however, the centre of Company power in London had in a sense fractured: since the Regulating Act and East India Act of 1773 and 1774, ultimate sovereignty over India rested – de facto if not quite de jure ­– with the government rather than the Company, and the Company could do very little without consulting a Board of Control. So, while a simplified model of the Colonial Office’s informational network in 1838 might look like a single centre from which lines radiate, like spokes on a wheel, to various points on the periphery, that of Britain’s rule over India looks rather different: a double centre from which a single line of communication extends to the three major (with one pre-eminent) centres of government within India. Along this one vector of information, matters were divided to some extent by place and presidency. There were still separate despatches for Calcutta, Madras and Bombay, but correspondence was arranged mostly by subject. Between London and the Presidencies there was a constant traffic of packages of correspondence, including more or less all the business that could possibly be done in the work of governing a still-expanding territorial colony and a patchwork of native client states.

In seeing how this was done, and in trying to get the measure of how India was ruled in 1838, the Company Court Minutes are a good place to start. The Company had three distinct types of Court: rambunctious and quasi-parliamentary Public Courts, at which anyone holding a certain amount of stock could participate; discreet Directors’ Courts, featuring only the handful of directors who ran the company, and usually called only for the election of new members; and the Courts of Proprietors. These occurred at least once every week throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and often more; most began at around eleven in the morning, and carried on until well after dinner time. General Courts were where policy was debated and ratified, appointments made, and correspondence cleared and sorted. (They were also, one imagines whilst reading the dryly pompous locutions of the minutes, events at which power was ritualised and a certain homosocial and mercantile ethic defined and performed.)



The Sale Room in the East India House, early nineteenth century, with a Public Court in progress. Repr. in William Foster, The East India House, its History and Associations (London: John Lane & Bodley Head, 1924).




The Court Minutes are, on first viewing, useful on three fronts: bureaucracy, the prioritization of communications infrastructure and governmental precedence, and the decentred locus of power.

Firstly, they provide a solid entry to a bureaucracy, its structures, rhythms and culture. The average Court meeting is a highly structured affair: correspondence is read out and sorted between three committees, dealing with Political & Military, Revenue and Judicial, and Financial and Home affairs. The court adjourns for a few hours while the committees confer, and on their return considers their replies, decisions, and draft paragraphs for inclusion in despatches. The drafts of correspondence, and the despatch paragraphs – the formalised briefings sent to India to direct action and policy – are either voted upon, or laid by for a week or two so that all members of the Company can see them; once voted on, they are sent off the Board of Control, which either approves them or suggests amendments. If there are amendments, these drafts can pass back and forth for weeks between Court and Board, with the Board always holding the power of veto.

Secondly, they provide an index, if only partial, of the concerns of governmental thinking at the time. In 1838, the topics that crop up every week are communication and sovereignty. The Directors and Proprietors are (understandably) obsessed with the speed and efficiency with which despatches pass between England and India: in trying to rule an enormous colony at a distance, they have to cope with a minimum time lag between a message sent out and a message received. Policy wrangles drag on for years; reports of proceedings in the native states in the first quarter of 1837 arrive in London in February 1838; accounts dating back five years or more pile up with every package received. The minutiae of communication, too, is of huge concern: in early 1838 the first Atlantic crossing by steam has just occurred, and the Company is dealing with the technical and logistical challenges of a technology which promises faster and more reliable communication. Coal depots are set up along the Cape and Suez routes, and there are endless enquiries about just how much coal is needed, whether the buildings can be sourced or built, and whether other countries’ ships should be allowed access to coal (sometimes yes, sometimes no). The Company’s agent in Alexandria is kept busy negotiating coaling in Mediterrannean and Red Sea ports, arranging the protection of armed Janissaries for despatches’ travel over the isthmus between the two seas, and sourcing parts and expertise for the repair of a steamship with a broken screw. The Court fields interminable letters from coal merchants tendering their ships for carrying coals from Llanelli to Bombay. The Courts themselves are responsive to the demands of communication: snap Courts are called when packets of letters arrive via Alexandria, the Cape, or Marseilles; each Court begins with a lengthy reading of all correspondence received, irrespective of subject or importance.

The other obsession is governmental precedence, and the vexed question of where authority actually lies. The tension between the Court and the Board is palpable in the Court Minutes. The formula “subject to approval of the India Board” is attached to even the most minor resolutions and drafts of letters. The weeks-long exchanges between the Board and the Court over policy differences, expressed sometimes in the most exacting disputes over the wording of despatches, cause endless frustration. Moreover, they’re often about subjects in which it is sovereignty specifically which is at stake: the power of the Board to appoint professors to the East India College at Haileybury, the structure of oversight of judicial appointees in Indian courts, or the power to grant pensions or pecuniary relief to impoverished ex-servants of the Company.

Thirdly, they show how difficult it is to pin down the sources of authority, and the ways in which government is always seemingly happening elsewhere.

The Court Minutes can give an impression of comprehensiveness and reach, of a gathering of men that – however frustrated by bureaucratic demands, procedure, volume, tedium, distance and politics – controlled an empire and its destiny. And this just isn’t true. The Directors did the work of policy-making, but ultimate sovereignty resided, if anywhere, with the Board; the business of governing India, within the policy and budgetary strictures the Court and Board hammered out between them, was done by the Government of India and its presidencies. The Board returns the Court’s drafts mutilated, but their deliberations clearly occur in a completely separate bureaucratic world; the attention to the minutiae of coal depots, and the debates over whether the Mediterranean packet should sail once a calendar month or once every four weeks, betray a continuing communicational powerlessness in the face of time, distance, international politics and the weather which won’t be significantly ameliorated until the telegraph becomes a viable medium; and the minutes are packed with Chelsea Pensioners’ requests for prize money from the Deccan wars, but millions of Indian subjects of Company rule are apparently completely silent. In these respects, these documents – produced by a body which liked to imagine itself as the very centre of British-Indian power – memorialise a surprising powerlessness.

Posted in Archives, Colonial Office, India Office

Snapshots of Empire: an introduction

Welcome to Snapshots of Empire. Over the next fifteen months, we’ll be using this blog to share regular updates, reveal our methodological challenges, tell stories, and explore some of the main themes of our research as they emerge.

So: how did a relatively small number of people in the nineteenth century – almost all male, almost all white, almost all drawn from the elite – control an empire that spanned the globe and governed the destinies of millions of subjects?

Trying to answer this question only reveals further unknowns: How did the technologies of writing and recording effect control over huge distances and, often, long time lags? How did new technologies of steam navigation, telegraph, and railway change these processes? How did the centre of empire control its furthest edges? What tension, attrition, or resistance did the metropole encounter in extending its networks? What cultures of rule and conceptions of identity developed in concert with the techniques of governance? What did those elite white men think they were doing, and how did they talk about it? How were the discourses and ideologies of empire produced and reproduced through its administrative technologies?

These are but a few of the questions we hope to examine over the course of this project. As a starting point, we will adopt a comprehensive approach to the study of materials from each of three target years: 1838, 1857, and 1879. Taking ‘snapshots’ of only a few months from those years, we’re going to read all correspondence going in and out of the India Office and Colonial Office – the two main agencies which sat at the centre of the imperial web – and try to get a sense of how empire was administrated ‘everywhere and all at once.’

But why do this work?

In histories of the British Empire, two major trends have emerged in recent decades. On the one hand are the big survey studies that focus on how the empire developed and took shape, and how we can understand it – politically, ideologically, and economically – on a broader level. On the other are those studies loosely defined as part of the ‘new imperial history’, which draw on cultural studies and the critical lexicons of gender and the postcolonial to construct empire as a contested web of personal and ideological connections. While the former often focus on the agencies of powerful white policy-makers, the latter, by contrast, tend toward area studies and the microhistorical to examine how relations of power were negotiated in the Empire’s zones of contact.

Few studies, however, have considered imperial governance as the art of overseeing people and territory everywhere and all at once, or the management of multiple and simultaneous events across the globe. Our new project seeks to do just that.

We also hope to address some of the divisions within the study of empire which reflect the compartmentalised structure of colonial government. Under the East India Company (and, after 1858, the India Office), different constitutional arrangements made the governance of India distinct from that of many Crown colonies; the Company had its own separate fiscal, military and judicial establishments, its own training college, and, by the nineteenth century, its own distinctive culture and jargon. Likewise, the Foreign and Colonial Offices had their own recruitment procedures, career structures, and office cultures, and governed colonies whose geographical dispersal and varying administrative challenges resisted uniform approaches. Even now, the archives of the Colonial Office are all in the National Archives in Kew, while those of the East India Company and the India Office are in the British Library. Following up the histories of each involves different locations and access logistics: the divisions in how the empire was run are replicated, in some ways, in the act of trying to write their history.

But these divisions aren’t absolute: the men who ran the empire exchanged ideas, shared cultures and spaces, and travelled between colonies and territories. We will be tracing how the Colonial Office and the East India Company/ India Office interacted with each other, corresponded, collaborated, coordinated policy, and responded to the demands and interventions of other government agencies. Kate Boehme and Pete Mitchell, our two postdoctoral researchers, will be working in the Colonial Office Records and the India Office records respectively: as we trawl through the archives, we’ll be looking out especially for correspondence between the offices, for points of contact and commonality.

In the coming months, we’ll be sharing our progress with you, giving show-and-tells of the things we find in the archives, developing our research themes and exploring the methodological challenges that the project presents. We’ll be bringing to light, too, some of the stranger things we find in the archives, and the unexpected twists we encounter. If nothing else, we hope it’s entertaining.

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