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European Imperialism and Colonial Response

Chuck Schaefer
Department of History, Valparaiso University


The composing room of the Times of India, 1898. Photo courtesy of the British Library.

The purpose of this brief article is to demonstrate how the Center for Research Libraries' (CRL) South Asia collection can be used to enhance classroom pedagogy and provide vast reserves of primary documents for undergraduate research. Before going into the specifics of the research agenda, a brief overview of the undergraduate seminar may be in order to more fully convey the expectations placed upon the students. The course is titled History 304, "European Imperialism and Colonial Response: Knowledge, Race & Power in British India."

Imperial conquest and control dominated European politics for three centuries. It was emblematic of European power over the far corners of the world. Few countries remained independent and for those that did their independence was dependent upon European approval. Imperialism also feed the industrial engines of Europe, providing the raw materials for production as well as the markets for commodity exchange. On the response side, colonialism had a more profound global impact than nationalism, industrialism or militarism, for it incorporated them all and stamped them with its particular effigy. In fact, colonialism ushered in modernity for more people than any other ideology or shared experience. All of this is to say that imperialism/colonialism is a historical phenomenon worthy of intense scrutiny and is nowhere more dramatically illustrated than with the British Raj in India.

This seminar asks the question: How did so few Englishmen rule over such a vast population in India for so long? The class attempts to assess how the British assembled knowledge to geographically map India, to separate the Indian population on the basis of religion and caste, to economically dominate all roadways and waterways of the subcontinent, and to construct alternate interpretations of Indian culture in order to more effectively divide and rule.

Another key component was race. Colonialism had the effect of reformulating notions of race. For the British, service in India caused them to radically alter their self-conception and construct new identities that were at once as foreign to England as they were to India. Likewise, many Indians assumed identities that were equally alien. Yet the racial gulf between an Englishman and an Indian was huge, but not necessarily separate. Recent historiography indicates that both Englishmen and Indians were influenced by one another, mutually borrowing customs, costumes and ideas.

The seminar begins by looking at racial and class stereotypes in order to understand the sociology of the British Raj. One aim is to construct as detailed a picture of the British colonial population as possible, including their diets, dress, housing, pastimes (sports) and work in order to see how different they were from their relatives who had remained in Great Britain. The bulk of the class, however, focuses more intentionally on the power dynamic, that is to say how knowledge was used more effectively than weapons to rule over India. The intention is to disassemble "indirect rule" to look at its constituent parts. Moreover, in this section we will be assessing how when certain indigenous customs, for example, sati (widow burning) did not fit into colonial moral codes they were abolished. In other instances, like the Durbar ceremony, Indian traditions were simply changed or even fabricated by the British to enhance their prestige and "Indianize" the Raj. The seminar comes full circle and concludes by looking at racial and caste stereotypes in order to understand the sociology of the subaltern under the British Raj. In other words, we will be looking at how the Indian populations adapted to British colonialism.

As stated at the outset, one of the goals is to enhance pedagogy. In attempting to understand how British society changed over time from nabob to sahib, British newspapers, such as the Indian Spectator (Bombay), are used to assess British self-conceptions. These same newspapers, found variously on microfilm and microfiche, indicate much about the social, culinary and recreational habits of the British population. By scanning the job advertisements one can also demonstrate how the technical demands and specialization within the colonial administration increased from the nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Perhaps an easier task is showing Indian reactions to British laws, taxes and general heavy-handedness. The CRL has a substantial collection called "Report on native papers" published in almost every corner of the British Raj. These are translations of Indian newspapers systematically compiled by the colonial administration for intelligence purposes. As a tool to illustrate what the Indian population was thinking about the British overlords, it is invaluable and brings a sense of intimacy between the student and the historical subject that lectures and secondary sources are incapable of generating. One thorny issue, that incidentally a student alerted me to, was over sati and British attempts to abolish it. For class discussion, I had assigned Lata Mani's Contentious Traditions: the Debate on Sati in Colonial India, when one student pulled out photocopies of editorials on a court case from Calcutta that showed the confusion even among the Indian population over sati.

As a seminar, emphasis is placed on the research paper. To summarize these expectations, I will reproduce the paragraph describing them from the syllabus.

The research paper should be between 12 and 15 pages long, excluding citations. The paper will be based on primary documents. (No secondary sources are allowed other than for general information you deem absolutely necessary). We will be devoting considerable time to looking at how documents can be used as historical texts. The research paper is your opportunity to write original history. This means that you are required to burrow into microfilms, microfiches, archives and or original documents available over the internet to devise a thesis about the British Raj and then marshal the evidence to support it. Much of the interlibrary loan material from the Center for Research Libraries (CRL) has either been placed on reserve or is available on the CRL web site. Moreover, you will have an opportunity to report your findings to the class at the end of the seminar.

The challenge of this assignment is preventing it from becoming overwhelming. With that it mind, I encourage students to formulate a simple thesis. In some instances I have encouraged students to simply look at the advertisements listed on the back pages of the British newspapers, then categorize and quantify them—the simplest exercise in quantitative methods for historians. Yet the results have been quite spectacular in terms of historical analyses of consumerism in India both for necessities and luxuries, origins of commodities, marketing techniques, and even attention to social status within the British community itself. Other student papers have focused on editorials and political cartoons which provide ample historical material once the initial fear of doing original research is overcome. Some students have looked at sermons and other Christian pamphlets to comprehend how Christian missions viewed the Hindu, Sikh and Muslim populations and whether or not there were differences between denominations. Parenthetically, the CRL Digital South Asia Library (DSAL) contains some excellent sources on this very topic which I am certain my current students will be interested in.

A few ambitious students have tried to compare British newspapers with the translations of Indian newspapers (Report on Native Papers). The task is finding an event that was sufficiently noteworthy to be reported in both the British and Indian media. Some located military campaigns, though these appear to have been better reported in the British press than in the Indian. More fruitful has been famines or other natural calamities. In some instances students have found reports on some kind of pandemic which has illustrated radically different understandings of disease and health care. While these compare and contrast papers reveal much about cultural differences, they do not necessarily address the historical dimension. Through much cajoling I badger them into finding a similar event 10, 20 or 50 years later and determine whether the discourse has changed in the intervening time period and which group has changed the most.

In one exemplary paper, a student found a court case in which a young woman objected to her arranged marriage when she became of age. The court case illustrated the cultural divide prior to the passage of the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929 and was so sensational that it was even picked up by the London press. By following the court case and the various appeals and contrasting them with the Child Marriage Restraint Act, the student produced an exceptional piece of undergraduate research.

In the past I have ordered boxes and boxes of microfilm and microfiche to be sent to Valparaiso University's library. Inventorying them and placing them on reserve has been an enormous undertaking for the library staff. While the CRL's Digital South Asia Library (DSAL) will naturally mean that I will be ordering less and my students will have access to more, I am not wholly convinced that I want to abandon the microfilms and microfiche. First of all there is something tangible and unique about using microfilm and microfiche readers. They are laborious and often frustrating but the vary fact that students have to scroll through vast amounts of unrelated material and data often gives them a more comprehensive picture of what was going on than if a search engine was able to refine their search for them.

Second, because data collection from microfilm and microfiche is so time consuming, groups of students have set aside time to meet in the reader room where they would yell back and forth if they found something of interest for another student's project. Collaborative projects are difficult to develop for historical research for it is such a solitary undertaking, yet the CRL microfilm and microfiche material spontaneously generated collaboration the first time, while every subsequent time I have taught the seminar I have encouraged it.

The quality of research papers of course varies; however, if the oral presentations are a barometer, each student appears vested in his or her material and committed to their own historical interpretation. Admittedly a chronologically accurate history of the British Raj is seldom produced; instead students attempt to make their own judgments about power, race and the assemblage of knowledge by Brits in India and equally nuanced understandings about Indians' responses. As a practicum in doing history, I remain indebted to the Center for Research Libraries.