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.

Posted in Uncategorized