Sign up for Our Newsletter

April/May 2013 – Nabobs: Empire and Identity in Eighteenth-Century Britain

NabobsReviewed by: Basil Poff, Massey University

Tillman W. Nechtman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 266 pp. $104 (hardback).

 How, in the second half of the eighteenth century, the formation of the British Empire impacted on the emergence of the British nation is the question addressed by Tillman Nechtman in this rewarding book. While the handsome cover suggests familiar topics in Indian history—the East India Company, Bengal, Clive, Hastings and, of course, the ‘nabobs’ themselves—the subtitle points us away from India to the metropolitan heart: Empire and Identity in Eighteenth-Century Britain, and the ‘debate about the relationship between nation and empire’ at the time that both were forming.

Older accounts concerned mainly with the impact of returning East India Company officers on parliamentary politics and government policy towards India are woven into the study, but are set in a wider frame which erects around the ‘nabobs’ both Enlightenment constructions of ‘India’ on the one hand, and popular representations of them on the other. The earlier of the five chapters are concerned with ‘the India of the mind’, the latter two with popular representations.

The construction of South Asia as corrupt, inert, superstitious and despotic opened it to colonization by the rational and virile British, but what if those who colonized it were corrupted by the experience? And what if, more alarmingly, they carried this contagion back to ‘their windswept archipelago’ (p. 223) where the nation was being formed? This anxiety found concentrated expression in the construction of the ‘nabob’ as a problem (a controversy) in late eighteenth-century Britain.

A key question which arose in any such colonial encounter was how the colonisers of the land saw themselves in relation to its past. That their reified stadial theory of history did not entirely answer this question is evident in their uncertainty as to whether India had once been a great civilization. Sure, it was sunk in a low trough at present, but travellers encountered stunning evidence of a glory that once had been, and ‘in some ways may still exist’. How was this glorious past to be reconciled with present ruin? The Orientalist answer, supplied equally for Egypt and Greece as for India, was to disconnect the present population from the wonders that had been. These wonders then passed into the possession of the men from across the sea who studied the ancient languages and in a real sense connected through their knowledge their own history to them. With the Indian past detached from the Indian present (even ‘Hinduism’ was in Orientalist discourse often registered in the past tense), the land itself was a sort of intellectual terra nullius, vacant for possession. India was theirs. This sense of being rightfully somewhere else, perhaps everywhere else, has been the most difficult thing for ‘an irretrievably imperial nation’ (p. 175) to give up in exchange for a home on a windswept archipelago.

This may have been more of a problem for an emerging national identity than even Nechtman considers it and, from the perspective of a New Zealander looking north, one which persists. The East India Company ‘servants’ who built their empire in South Asia drew from it not only wealth and at least a semblance of power, but a sense of rightfully belonging there. Burke was right to say of Warren Hastings that he lived as an Indian. It was as an Indian nawab that Hastings built on indigenous law, established the Muslim College in Calcutta and in 1784 founded the Royal Asiatic Society with William Jones, the embodiment of the Orientalist incorporation of India into the Western world. Jones frequently and eloquently expressed both his contempt for present Indian society and his mission to reconnect it to its past through that knowledge which was now ‘his’. The notion that they were ‘Indian’, rather than British sojourners in India, furnished an improbable confidence to the British rulers of South Asia for two centuries. This is not unrelated to their arrogance and greed as portrayed in the popular British press: Clive’s jagir from Mir Jaffa was not a contentious matter to him, not the cause of his suicide. This is perhaps not sufficiently linked to the ‘nabob’ controversy. Had it been it would probably have confirmed the notion that ‘those with connections to India were slippery; their identities were unstable, made fluid by the distance—both geographic and temporal—that came of the long passage to India’ (p. 138). Nechtman’s hardly accidental nod here towards what happened to Forster’s Mrs Moore in the Marabar caves could have been accentuated—was it another dimension of the ‘controversy of the nabobs’ that while India could be possessed it could also take possession?

The final two of Nechtman’s five chapters consider how the alien culture brought home, especially in the form of objects, by the returning East India Company employees may have unsettled the developing sense of what being British meant. While wearing cotton and drinking tea had become general by 1800, more exotic behaviours and fashions gave rise to an unease to which the response was to construct the ‘nabobs’ as corrupt and given to excess. While a popular frisson vibrated around the ‘nabobs’ and ‘nabobinas’ (their sexual mores more than administrative management), one wonders by the final chapter whether the soap-opera of Henry Thompson and Sarah Bonner, extending over nearly ten pages, or the delicious and salacious cartoons of James Gillray, really constitute evidence of anything outside the gossipy theatrical world of the metropolis. But they make for lively reading, and leave little doubt that ‘nabobs’ were at least a good focal ‘problem’ to be worried about if the underlying concern was what it was to be British.

This entry was posted in Book of the Month, News. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.