2017 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of British rule in India, and the emergence of India and Pakistan as independent nation states. To commemorate this anniversary, the British government announced that this year would be celebrated as the ‘UK-India Year of Culture.’
‘Threads of Empire: rule and resistance in colonial India’, an exhibition currently at the University of Nottingham’s Weston Gallery, was planned to coincide and complement the ‘celebrations’ as part of the ‘UK-India Year of Culture.’ The exhibition displays aspects of the University’s extensive archival documents relating to colonial India and introduces the public to the history of the British Empire in India through a display of those documents.
The University’s archives hold the collections of a number of landed families in the East Midlands who had trade and military connections with India as part of the British Empire. These include the official and personal papers of Lord William Cavendish Bentinck (1774-1839), Governor General of India between 1828 and 1835, held as part of the Portland Collection.
Colonial archives and curatorial challenges
As a historian of the British Empire with a focus on India, I have been deeply sceptical about the ‘UK-India Year of Culture’ from its outset, when the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, claimed that:
‘The great partnership between India and the UK extends beyond economic ties to the boards of The Bard and the beaches of Bollywood. We have some of the best cultural exports in the world – and it’s about time we celebrated this together.’
Conveniently glossing over the long history of violence and plunder that has underpinned Britain’s relationship with the Indian sub-continent, the ‘UK-India Year of Culture’ appears as a whitewashing of colonialism, with the implicit assumption that ‘culture’ represents a neutral political terrain. From the outset, then, my aim for the exhibition was to provide an interpretation of the rise of the British Empire in India that critiqued the notion of culture as somehow a-political, and to focus on the role of South Asian people in shaping and resisting colonial power. As colonial and post-colonial historians are well aware, however, de-centering elite, British men from the narrative of empire is extremely challenging!
Curating an exhibition based on a relatively small number of different archival collections posed other challenges. We had around 1500 words in total, spread across six boards, in which to cover the rise of the British Empire in India from six different thematic perspectives. Those perspectives had to tie in with the archival materials, which heavily dictated the shape of the historical narrative. The average visitor would probably read no further than the first 50 words of each board, if that, so the message needed to be clear and concise. Furthermore, the contents of the exhibition needed to be visually appealing. Fascinating though the majority of reports and letters were, beneath a glass cabinet they just looked like a scruffy mass of paper filled with scrawly handwriting.
My own reluctance to use images drawn from white supremacist, nineteenth-century children’s books, or photos from a later period, soon dissipated when faced with the prospect of empty walls. I also developed an enthusiasm for military regalia that I did not know I possessed – including a sepoy’s sabre and Highland cap badge loaned from Nottingham Castle!
To reinforce the centrality of textiles to the rise of the East India Company, and to promote local textile art, I commissioned three Nottingham-based artists to develop a piece of textile art that responded to the themes of the exhibition. Funded by the Vice Chancellor’s grant for impact, the artists developed a triptych, ‘Entangled Freedoms I, II and III’ that represented the trade, the plunder and the bloodshed that was an inherent part of the colonial project. The triptych brings colour and vibrancy to the exhibition, and serves as a reminder of the role that artists can play in interpreting, critiquing and representing history from different perspectives and using very different mediums.
Threads of Empire
We began the archival research for the exhibition in September 2016. Along with Ibtisam Ahmed – who worked alongside me as a research assistant – I started with eighteenth-century indentures and bonds of sale. Trade, and particularly the textile trade was, after all, the foundation of the East India Company, it’s raison d’etre.
As cultural historians, however, our enthusiasm spiked when we found a letter, written in 1743 by an anonymous Anglo-Indian woman based in Madras. She described in great detail a meeting with the wives of the Nawab of Arcot, their clothes, make-up and jewelry, as well as their curiosity at her own petticoat hoops. It was this letter, alongside a printed document entitled ‘Necessaries for a Cadet proceeding to India’ (1824) that generated the title of the exhibition, ‘Threads of Empire.’
Culture was a critical and contentious component of imperial rule and played an important role in resisting it. References to clothes and cloths kept appearing in the records, yet hats played a particularly prominent role in the history of resistance to colonial rule. In a translation of a 1782 conference between the ruler of Mysore, Haidar Ali (1780-1782), and an East India Company agent, Shrinas Rao, an outraged Haidar Ali referred to Europeans as ‘hat wearers’ and decried the East India Company’s duplicity, stating that ‘all is deceit!’
The reports of the Vellore Mutiny were even more hat-oriented. In 1806, Sikh, Muslim and Hindu soldiers (sepoys) rebelled against the East India Company’s change in uniform regulations. The sepoys objected to the new headdress, which they claimed was not a turban, but a topi containing leather. This sparked fears that the East India Company were looking to convert troops to Christianity. Their concerns unheeded, they rose up in what was the biggest rebellion prior to the better-known ‘Indian Mutiny’ of 1857, killing 150 European officers. The mutiny was brutally suppressed by Colonel Gillespie, with nearly 800 sepoys killed in the violent reprisals. In the documents legislating uniform codes and the reports into the Vellore rising, displayed as part of the exhibition, it is clear that ‘culture’, as represented in this case through clothing, was anything but politically neutral.
Rule and resistance
Our aim for the exhibition was also to identify and recognize resistance as a productive and vital component of rule. In doing so, we drew on the methodologies and insights generated by historians of South Asia and the British Empire. Over thirty years ago, the Subaltern Studies school, a collective of socialist historians working on South Asia and influenced by Marx and Gramsci, developed a method of historicizing resistance to capitalism, even when reliant on colonial archives. Reading ‘against the grain’ of the official records of peasant revolts and workers’ struggles, they showed how the most oppressed and forgotten people in society could be recognized as historical agents.
Furthermore, feminist historians such as Lata Mani, Gayatri Spivak and Urvashi Butalia have shown how the voices of women are often completely absent in the records, even when debates, such as those over sati (widow immolation) directly affect them. Overall, these historians’ approaches influenced the analytical framework of the exhibition.
The forms of resistance that we identified and have displayed as part of ‘Threads of Empire’ were remarkably varied, encompassing very different socio-economic and religious groups, from Prince Jamh O’Deen (1792-1842), the younger son of Tipu Sultan, to nameless soldiers. Their views were not necessarily always what we might consider ‘progressive’, yet as historians we do not have to agree with them to recognize them as active agents and participants in the shaping of imperial rule.
This is particularly the case with the debates over sati, the practice of burning a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre, which the East India Company government made illegal in Bengal in 1829. For example, a four-meter-long petition written and signed by elite, Brahmin men in Calcutta in 1828 protests against the East India Company government’s plans to ban sati (widow immolation). In one of the reports on sati, an anonymous ‘Hindu woman’ is reported to have statedthat whilst her own preference was for prayer, she believed that for the government to ban sati would be ‘tyrannical’. Given the lack of surviving evidence of women’s perspectives on sati, this fragment offers a very rare glimpse of a woman’s complex and nuanced engagement with politics.
The past through the lens of the present
Taken together, the documents included as part of the exhibition illustrate the precarious foundations of British imperial rule and the constant and varied strategies of resistance that shaped imperial power. Our focus on resistance was borne partly of the documents available in the archives, but also by today’s context of increasingly authoritarian power structures in South Asia and in the West. The lens through which we read the archival documents was one of growing alarm at the Indian and Pakistani governments’ attempts to shut down all dissent by imprisoning those who critiqued the state. Scholars and activists such as G.N. Saibaba or Junaid Hafeez have been imprisoned on spurious charges of terrorism, sedition or blasphemy. Our colleagues in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh face threats and dangers from both popular religious fundamentalists and nationalists, as well as their own governments.
Here, in Britain, similar trends of undermining human rights and shutting down critique are evident on the streets, in the press, as well as from government. In today’s political climate, in which dissent is marked as ‘sedition’, and critique as ‘anti-national’ or ‘unpatriotic’, focusing on the role of resistance in configuring power appears increasingly necessary. ‘Threads of Empire’s’ reveals the myriad voices and forms of resistance that shaped British imperial power in India, highlighting the importance of dissent and disagreement in the past, as a lesson for the present.
Dr Onni Gust is lecturer in colonial and postcolonial history at the University of Nottingham.