Writing to the Directors of the East India Company in 1784, Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of Bengal, described the effects of his founding of the Calcutta Madrasa a decade earlier. It had helped, Hastings claimed, "to soften the prejudices excited by the rapid growth of the British dominions" in India (Ehrlich, p. 56). The three books discussed here explore different dimensions and consequences of that expansion of Company power in the subcontinent.
In "Empire of Influence", Callie Wilkinson assesses the network of subsidiary alliances – so-called from the payment of subsidies required by the East India Company from those it deemed to be its allies – which took shape towards the end of the eighteenth century. Founded on increasingly unequal terms, these political relationships were overseen by Company representatives, known as Residents, who were both encouraged and inclined to intervene in the internal affairs of notionally independent kingdoms. By requiring local rulers to finance Company troops located in their territories – ostensibly so that they could march into battle to defend the ally in question – the system effectively neutralized potential rivals and prevented the creation of competing coalitions. Ultimately, this strategy served to maintain the Company’s political and military position in the subcontinent. In keeping with other recent interventions in the history of the Company, Wilkinson focuses less on dramatic occasions and rather more on the diurnal, everyday events and interactions that shaped Residents’ experiences, thereby painting a more realistic and intimate portrait of their lives and careers in the process.
While these allied kingdoms have generated a good deal of scholarship in their own right, Callie Wilkinson points out that their collective relationship with the East India Company has become something of a "blind spot" in the historiography of that organization (Wilkinson, p. 3). And even when the system of subsidiary alliances has been acknowledged, it has often been glossed over or dismissed as safe, secure and reliable. This book, on the other hand, reveals a more complex picture of doubt, debate and resistance. In place of a narrative of easy accommodation, "Empire of Influence" shows Residents struggling to balance the need for control and coercion on the one hand, with co-operation and conciliation on the other. In many cases, the polities explored here endured until Indian independence in the form of those ‘princely states’ allied to the British Raj that succeeded the Company. In 1947, they numbered in the hundreds, comprising almost a third of the subcontinent’s land area and a quarter of its population. Indeed, when scholars have turned their attention to these states, it has invariably been on the years leading up to Indian independence. For that reason, the focus here on the genesis and early decades of this system, as well as on the contradictions and contingencies inherent in these relationships, is much to be welcomed. Not only does "Empire of Influence" retrieve an important and understudied aspect of the Company’s operations in India, which needs to be integrated into broader studies of that particular institution, it also has much to tell us about later phases of the British Empire around the globe. Relationships of coercion, together with the accompanying rhetoric of 'security’ and ‘protection’, became defining characteristics of the British Empire in its later phases (Wilkinson, p. 5). Indeed, this is an area where there is more to say. Callie Wilkinson quite rightly defines and delimits the chronological terms of her analysis carefully. Future research might venture further into the Victorian era and beyond to identify the ways in which elements of the system of subsidiary alliances explored here survived and informed aspects of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century British Empire more generally. Elsewhere, Wilkinson suggests other ways to broaden the scope of the research. She advocates, for example, for more investigation of the role of borders and liminal spaces – and their inhabitants – in understanding the relationship between the Company and what became the princely states.
Callie Wilkinson’s elegant prose and forensic research help to expose layers of information and uncover new levels of detail about the Residency system. "Empire of Influence" is, in effect, an archaeology of the system of subsidiary alliances. Joshua Ehrlich’s exploration of the voluminous sources left by the Company is no less impressive. In his case, however, the rich seam of archival evidence that informs his work runs through a wider chronological and thematic range of Company bed-rock. As a result of his sifting, sorting, cataloguing, codifying and analysing – precisely the kind of approach of which many of the historical actors and agents he writes about would be proud, one imagines – Ehrlich presents a powerful and persuasive argument. "The East India Company and the Politics of Knowledge" explores the ways in which ideas about knowledge permeated discourse in and about the Company and, ultimately, how the politics of knowledge shaped the politics and ideas of the Company.
Underpinning this approach is the striking idea that the Company traded in intellectual goods as much as in material ones. Its interest in and patronage of science and those who practised it is a useful illustration of this. It was something acknowledged by contemporaries too. Whatever else might be said about the Company – and at the time of writing in 1785, Parliament was on the verge of impeaching Warren Hastings for his actions in India – one could not question its support for science or impugn its reputation as a sponsor of ventures undertaken in the name of scientific advances. At least that was the view of the cartographer James Rennell, who lauded the Company’s support for ‘useful Science’, proving that "a body of subjects may accomplish, what the State itself despairs even to attempt" (Ehrlich, p. 61). (Warren Hastings’s successful extraction of a pension for Rennell may have influenced the latter’s positive attitude towards the Company, but the broader point stands.) Rennell’s statement alerts us to one of the central tensions in the history of the Company: how a private trading concern might conduct activities that are now generally thought of as the prerogative of the state. It is worth observing, as Ehrlich does, that this consensus view is increasingly being questioned again by the emergence of seemingly all-powerful technology corporations in the twenty-first century.
Ultimately, all three books are concerned with the profound alterations in both political climate and thinking that defined the last, turbulent half-century of the Company’s existence. In Joshua Ehrlich’s case, the scholarship and scientific research that characterized the late-eighteenth-century world of the Company seem increasingly to be side-lined as the new century dawned. By the middle of the nineteenth century, one of the Company’s directors, Henry St George Tucker, argued bluntly that India could no longer be "retained by the force of erudition" (Ehrlich, p. 167). Instead of supporting the acquisition of specialist knowledge, Ehrlich shows how the nineteenth-century Company increasingly turned its attention to providing mass education as its key task. In contrast to the narrower confines of scientific patronage, this would be a widespread provision, with the aim of reaching as many people as possible and convincing them of the benefits of Company rule. Mountstuart Elphinstone, Governor of Bombay, identified his responsibility "to diffuse knowledge among all orders of the people of this country", for example (Ehrlich, p. 177). ‘Improvement’, ‘civilization’ and education – terms freighted with cultural assumptions – became the watchwords of the Company and its officials. In short, mass education seemed to be a way of softening those prejudices identified by Hastings nearly half a century earlier. In exploring this aspect of the Company’s later history, the book makes an important and refreshingly innovative intervention into the well-worn narrative around the so-called ‘Anglicist-Orientalist controversy’. Nuance and complexity are often missing from a debate that invites binary choices. Here though, we have a thoughtful and considered contribution, founded on wide-ranging research into a wealth of archival material and combined with skilful and imaginative analysis.
In their respective books, then, Callie Wilkinson and Joshua Ehrlich offer fresh perspectives for historians of the East India Company through their meticulous research and carefully calibrated arguments. Both of these qualities are also evident in "Unmaking the East India Company". Whereas his colleagues looked through the historian’s lens, however, Tom Young approaches the Company’s history through art historical methodologies. Visual culture, issues of the creation and production of artworks, as well as their distribution and reception, are at the heart of this book. The works of art examined here comprise a very different imperial archive from the Residents’ correspondence, government policies or public pronouncements examined by the others. However, in an echo of Wilkinson’s approach, Tom Young contends that art in its various guises offers access to everyday colonial experiences and can illuminate the Company’s precarious position in India in the same way as textual sources.
"Unmaking the East India Company" is not the first book to explore the art of the Company. However, much of the focus, as Tom Young quite rightly observes, has been on the eighteenth-century hey-day of the Company. Artists like William Hodges, Johan Zoffany and the Daniells are well researched and well known. In contrast, Young focuses on the last half-century of the Company Raj in India when it was effectively acting as an arm’s-length body administering huge swathes of the subcontinent on behalf of the British Government. At the same time as questions swirled around its ability to survive, so developments in the production and consumption of art altered its role and place in public discourse.
"Unmaking the East India Company" is theoretically engaged but eminently readable and beautifully illustrated. It draws together three crucial developments that shaped art production in the subcontinent in the first half of the nineteenth century: first, the proliferation of so-called ‘amateur artists’; second, developments in art creation, production and publishing; and third, and particularly important in relation to India, the emergence of new media and technologies that could increasingly bring representations to the attention of marginal groups and audiences. Newly discovered or refined technologies of visualization were especially significant: lithography, for example, could reproduce scripts that were incompatible with fixed type, encouraging its patronage among indigenous courts in India (Young, p. 45). This book opens up a variety of avenues for further research. For instance, satirical prints, costume albums and ethnographic sketches operated as media for conveying scenes of everyday life in this period, as well as forms of political identification, engagement and protest (Young, p. 192). In the context of an expanding global empire, what Young describes as ‘non-canonical artworks’ offer avenues to access a variety of hitherto unvoiced histories. Although it has a great deal to tell us about the Company, then, "Unmaking the East India Company" goes beyond this to make a broader argument about British art as "a global, corporate and imperial phenomenon" (Young, p. 190). In doing so, however, it serves to reinforce the centrality of the Company to the development and expansion of the nineteenth-century British Empire.
Taken on their own terms – as they deserve to be – each book illuminates under-researched and underappreciated aspects of the East India Company’s history, and their respective authors point to vital and vibrant areas of new research and potential future investigation. But they also share unifying themes that suggest trends in the scholarship and hint at how some of the historiographical debates about this organization’s history will play out over the coming years. For example, all three emphasize the uncertainty and fragility of the Company’s position in the subcontinent. As Callie Wilkinson observes, the Company’s Residents were particularly attuned to this, where their everyday lives were affected by such considerations. But the anxiety was all-pervasive. The Company was consistently beset by concerns about impending financial disaster, military catastrophe and political controversy. In their own way, each of these books illuminates aspects of that precariousness.
Second, the importance of knowledge comes across clearly. Of course for Joshua Ehrlich, knowledge – and ideas about knowledge and the politics surrounding it – are the subject of an entire monograph. But all three books underscore the fact that the Company’s political control in the subcontinent was facilitated by the conquest of knowledge as much as of territory. For many of the Residents studied by Callie Wilkinson, for instance, spies, espionage and intelligence were constant preoccupations. One of these Residents, James Anderson, observed that at "every durbar in Hindostan the furnishing of intelligence has become a fixed trade" (Wilkinson, p. 76). Meanwhile, many of the images distributed as lithographs, and discussed by Tom Young in his book, helped to mould attitudes about civilization and governance.
Third, these books focus our attention on an important, relatively understudied, period in the Company’s history. Earlier generations of scholars often gravitated towards the middle of the eighteenth century when the Company was establishing its territorial dominions. Recently, historians have been revisiting the early days of the Company, in the seventeenth century. These three scholars do something different again, coalescing around the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century. There is perhaps less drama to be had here – there is no Clive standing amazed at his own moderation, or James Lancaster spending years sailing the high seas in search of spices. But the relevance of these historians’ work – and, by extension, this period – is clear.
In a similar way, these studies resuscitate figures who have frequently appeared in histories of the East India Company but have, perhaps, not received the scholarly attention their actions warrant. The amateur artist Charles D’Oyly and his family are significant figures in Tom Young’s work, for instance, and long overdue recognition as key agents involved in representing the Company and its world. Perhaps the most obvious character for reappraisal is Richard Wellesley, whose time as governor-general receives some much-needed attention in these books. He recognized the value of knowledge and the power of diplomacy. For Wellesley, as Joshua Ehrlich observes, extending "the boundaries of […] science" went hand in hand with the extension of territory (Ehrlich, p. 119). In the case of Callie Wilkinson’s focus on the subsidiary alliance system, Wellesley's policy was tinged with a more ideological hue. In addition to being a clever way to weaken rivals and divide potential enemies, the system was now increasingly put to the service of the Company’s wider ‘duty’ and ‘mission’ to impose order across the subcontinent.
Finally, and perhaps most pertinently, all three authors agree on the contemporary resonance of the history they are exploring and exposing here. In "Empire of Influence", this acknowledgement is more implicit, but informal control by both nation-states and non-state actors is clearly an area for concern in today’s world as much as at the turn of the nineteenth century. Tom Young draws on contemporary artistic practice – Candice Lin’s installation "System for a Stain" (2016), for example, where conchineal, poppy seeds, sugar and Thames mud mix in an obvious metaphor for globalized flows of trade – to make the point. Joshua Ehrlich’s book packs the most powerful contemporary punch. "The East India Company and the Politics of Knowledge" focuses on the ways in which states and companies become entangled and overlap in terms of access to and control of knowledge. The relevance for our twenty-first-century world of global corporations could hardly be clearer. Rarely do historians succeed in arguing so successfully for the relevance of their work in the maelstrom of the present day than Ehrlich does here.
If the evidence of these three monographs is representative, the future of the East India Company’s history looks bright indeed. That’s not to say, of course, that the Company’s many foibles and disastrous failings over the course of its two-and-a-half-century career will look any better in years to come. Thanks to the work of scholars like Callie Wilkinson, Joshua Ehrlich and Tom Young, however, we will have a much better sense of the complexities and nuances of that history.