South Asia

Spectral Sovereigns and Divine Subalterns

by guest contributor Milinda Banerjee

Spectres of dead kings are haunting the world today. In a 2015 interview, Emmanuel Macron declared that since the death of Louis XVI, there has been a vacuum at the heart of French politics: an absent king. According to him, the Napoleonic and Gaullist moments were efforts to fill this vacuum. Since becoming President, Macron has been steadily emphasizing regal symbolism to represent his authority. Across the Atlantic, scholars have long observed the monarchic lineages, or even messianic roots, of the American Presidency via British-European constitutional thought. But the monarchic turn has intensified of late, as Donald Trump’s Christian supporters compare him to the Biblical monarchs David, Nebuchadnezzar, and Cyrus. Romans 13, the New Testament passage used for centuries to justify submission to rulers as supposedly ordained by God, now finds increasing traction in American discourse about Trump, especially surrounding immigration and foreign policy. In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has invited comparison with Pharaohs, while academic discussions note continuities between interwar Arab monarchies and post-royal dictatorships in the region.

In India, when Narendra Modi, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, became Prime Minister in 2014, Hindu nationalists celebrated him as the first proper Hindu ruler in Delhi in 800 years since the defeat of King Prithviraj Chauhan at the hands of Turko-Afghan invaders. Bollywood has also been making blockbuster movies, celebrating – supposedly  Hindu nationalist – kings, while the soon-to-be-tallest statue in the world is being built off Mumbai, depicting Shivaji, a seventeenth-century monarch dear to Hindu-Indian nationalism. We are clearly witnessing a global phenomenon: the return of monarchic figures in political thought, comparison, ritual, and iconography, hand in glove with the rise of strongman leaderships and nationalisms.

To explain this planetary resurgence of kingly manes, we need to draw upon lenses of global intellectual history, enriched by scholarship on earlier epochs of connected waves of monarchism and state formation, such as by Sanjay Subrahmanyam and David Cannadine. We may also take a cue from models of political theology advanced by Carl Schmitt, Ernst Kantorowicz, and Giorgio Agamben. In my recently-published book The Mortal God: Imagining the Sovereign in Colonial India, I try to provide a historical genealogy for this global phenomenon through a focused study of modern India. I suggest that British administrators and intellectuals, like Viceroy Lord Lytton, Viceroy Lord Curzon, and the author Rudyard Kipling,  as well as elite Indians, like the socio-religious reformer Keshub Chunder Sen, frequently justified the construction of strong imperial and/or princely sovereign state apparatuses in late nineteenth and early twentieth century South Asia by using monarchic concepts and images. Often, Christian-inspired notions of monotheistic authority anchored their visions of providentially-mandated monistic-centralized state sovereignty. For example, Lieutenant-Governor Alfred Lyall quoted Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea to relate imperial unification to the triumph of monotheism, in the Roman Empire as well as in British India. The title of my book gestures towards this sacralisation of the state, and, more specifically, towards the widespread citations of Hobbes in modern India, especially by Indian intellectuals and politicians, to debate these constructions of sovereignty (Mortal God, Introduction, Chapters 1-3).

In challenge, middle-class Indian intellectuals like Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, Nabinchandra Sen, and Mir Mosharraf Hossain created blueprints of non-colonial sovereignty, in the form of Hindu-Indian-nationalist or Islamic righteous kingdoms (in Sanskrit/Bengali, dharmarajya), which were ideologically anchored on the unity of a monotheistic divinity and/or sacred kingship. Many Indians were inspired by the monarchically-mediated nationalist unification of Italy and Germany. By the 1900s, Japanese monarchy and Shintoism offered templates of state-building to Hindu and Muslim actors. In the 1910s and early 1920s, the Ottoman Caliphate question inspired many Indians to combat colonial authority in the name of divine sovereignty: the trials of Muhammad Ali and Shaukat Ali embodied a fierce battleground. In interwar years, Indians also cited other royal models to imagine national sovereignty: Amanullah’s Afghanistan, Reza Shah Pahlavi’s Iran, Faisal I’s Iraq, Rama VII’s Siam/Thailand, and the (incipiently anti-Dutch) kingships of Java and Bali. Ultimately, an ancient Sanskrit word for kingship, sarvabhauma – literally, (lord) of all earth – offered the root word for ‘sovereignty’ in most Indian languages (Mortal God, Chapters 3 and 5).

For a proper global historical explanation of today’s monarchist resurgence, we need however to look beyond India. Hence, a book I edited with Charlotte Backerra and Cathleen Sarti draws on case studies from across Asia, Russia, Europe, North Africa, and Latin America, to conceptualize ‘royal nationhood’ as a transnationally-constructed category. My chapter uses lenses of global intellectual history, and offers various examples, including Walter Bagehot and Kakuzo Okakura, to show how actors from around the world learnt from other societies to place the figure of the (present, historical, and/or imagined) monarch as a (practical and/or symbolic) centre around which national unity and sovereignty could be built up, surpassing class and factional differences. Today, monarchic spectres are being resurrected again by sectarian nationalisms, which derive material strength from the inequality-breeding regimes of global capitalism and the grievances they invariably spawn among those left out. Ruling classes and angry populations are deploying these spectres to delineate majoritarian-national unity – a mythic unitary sovereign above classes and factions, with Caesarist and salvific promise – against vulnerable minorities, refugees, and aliens. Taking a cue from the comparison of Trump with the Biblical Nehemiah in terms of building walls – and Émile Benveniste’s discussion on the Indo-European rex/raja as a maker of boundaries between “the interior and the exterior, the realm of the sacred and the realm of the profane, the national territory and foreign territory” (Dictionary of Indo-European Concepts and Society, 312) – I would argue that sectarian nationalists today invoke regal manes to forge borders, segregation, and inequality. If sovereignty is seen as a motor of global conceptual travel, we can explain why the globalization of models of centralized and exclusionary state sovereignty over the last centuries has also propelled periodic and global waves of monarchic conceptualization, often even after the demise of real-life kingships: clear evidence how republics too are haunted by (to borrow Jacques Derrida’s words) the “patrimonial logic of the generations of ghosts” (Specters of Marx, 133). It is thus ironic, but fitting, that supporters of the defunct Italian monarchy should draw strength today from Trump’s aggressive nationalism, while reposing faith in a sovereign who would embody the nation by being super partes.

However, sovereignty is not a ‘thing’ which merely spreads top-down, via elite interventions and circulations. The mysterious pathways of sovereignty do not only translate ‘sacred’ hierarchies into human government, but also engender agonisms and dialectical transfigurations. Thus in colonial India, women like Sunity Devi, Nivedita, Sarojini Naidu, and Begum Rokeya, invoked Indian, European, Islamicate, and Chinese models of queenship, to demand women’s right to political authority. These interventions often became linked to transnational feminist and suffragette networks, and opened up spaces beyond strongman nationalism (Mortal God, Chapter 3). Simultaneously, peasant, ‘tribal’, and pastoral populations asserted royal ‘Kshatriya’ identity and divine selfhood, drawing on precolonial-origin models of community autonomy and regal theology, as well as liberal-democratic and socialist-Communist forms of association. They claimed democratic representation, dignity of labour, material betterment, and reservations in education and employment. They grounded their claims to rulership and divinity on practices like ploughing and animal husbandry, outlining ideals of nourishing and pastoral governance that bear comparison with (even as they sharply diverge from) those outlined by Michel Foucault. Politicians like Panchanan Barma in Bengal and Dasarath Deb in Tripura used Kshatriya organization to structure peasant resistance against high-caste Indian elites. Many of these ‘lower caste’ movements – and their ‘vernacular’ intellectual trajectories – remain powerful even today, rooting ideas of universal rights, equality, and democracy in the collectivization of divine and regal selfhood (Mortal God, Chapter 4).

Peasant and working-class agitation in colonial India also drew on varied messianic models, from ideas about the Mahdi’s advent and Allah’s sovereignty in relation to peasant autonomy, to the notion of ‘Gandhi Maharaj’. The Russian Revolution and Communism were sources of inspiration too. These popular utopianisms, instigated by discontent against colonial fiscal oppression and political-military brutality, fuelled grand insurrections, dismantling the British Empire in the subcontinent. Inspired by such struggles, the poet Kazi Nazrul Islam as well as Rajavamshi peasants devised sophisticated forms of materially-grounded dialectical theory, involving transition from servitude (dasatva) and heteronomy (parashasana) – when one alienated one’s self (sva-hin) – to the recovery of self and ethical-material autonomy (svaraj, atmashasana), leading finally to the anarchic cessation of all rule when one realised the fullness of divinity within oneself and others (Mortal God, Chapters 4 and 5).

These Indian cases invite wider comparisons, such as with the seventeenth-century Leveller Richard Overton’s statement about “every man by nature being a king, priest and prophet” or with Ludwig Feuerbach’s nineteenth-century conception of divinity as present in every human being. Rather than a theory of democracy predicated on an empty/disembodied centre, as in Claude Lefort, we are tempted to outline a radically novel conception of the democratic political embedded in the proliferation and multiplication of divine being. There is a barely-developed hint in Agamben’s recent opus, Karman (78-79, 83), of such a turn, drawing on ancient India, to inspire a new model of action. In our world of strongman sovereigns and unrelenting degradation of human and nonhuman actors, we need to recuperate such globally-oriented political theory and practice, while remaining critical towards, and abjuring, the chauvinistic and hierarchical elements historically present in them. If engaged with dialectical intimacy, visions which once inspired rebels to overthrow ruling classes can help us conjure today solidarities with peasants and refugees, neighbours and strangers. To see everyone as regal and divine, and act upon this, can become a lightning bolt to wield for unshackling democracies to come.

Milinda Banerjee is Research Fellow at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich from 2017 to 2019, as well as Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Presidency University (Kolkata, India). His dissertation, which offered an intellectual history of concepts and practices of rulership and sovereignty in colonial India (with a primary focus on Bengal, ca. 1858-1947), has now been published as The Mortal God: Imagining the Sovereign in Colonial India (Cambridge University Press, 2018). His research project at LMU is titled ‘Sovereignty versus Natural Law? The Tokyo Trial in Global Intellectual History’. 

Tracing the perceived merits of Robert Orme’s History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan (1763)

By guest contributor Laura Tarkka-Robinson

In the eighteenth century, the sundry genre of early-modern travel writing – or ‘travels’ – was not only popular but also notorious for leading gullible readers astray. In this regard, it is hardly remarkable that the improved second edition of John Henry Grose’s fairly inconsequential Voyage to the East Indies (1766) plagiarized a passage concerning judicial practice in India from another recent publication. Furthermore, given that this passage was added to increase the appeal of the Voyage as a source of knowledge, it might seem equally unremarkable that the text from which it was appropriated was still praised as better ‘than almost any of the more recent productions on that subject’ in 1805 (xxix).

Yet, Indian customs were not the express subject of the plagiarized book, the highly successful History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan (1763), which earned its author Robert Orme the title of ‘the first official historiographer of the East India Company’. Thus, the hierarchic relationship between Grose’s eye-witness travel account and Orme’s military history becomes very interesting in light of the affinities which these works actually display. For in fact, both drew on the author’s personal experience in the service of the English East India Company while describing Indian customs and manners in the language of Oriental despotism, in accordance with Montesquieu’s notions on the influence of climate (10).

Hence, it is surprising that despite other Orientalists’ critique of subjective observations (34-35) Orme’s work gained and sustained a high status of authority on Hindu customs. I argue that this puzzle can, however, be solved by considering the opinions expressed by contemporary reviewers in conjunction with the structure of Orme’s History and its epigone, the new edition of Grose’s Voyage.

The trajectory of Grose’s Voyage helps us to recover the perceived merits of Orme’s History, for besides the plagiarized passages, the improved edition of the Voyage also boasted an additional volume describing the military affairs of the British in India, thus setting the two publications into a competitive relationship with each other. The addition of the second volume suggests that the anonymous editor of the Voyage was reacting to the rising taste for historical narratives, especially since some reviews had expressed impatience (318) with Grose’s miscellaneous observations. Indeed, although the Voyage had been swiftly translated into French and recommended for an abundance of reliable detail (viii) on Indian customs and manners, its sense of immediacy never attained as much appreciation (96) as the more literary performance of Orme.

However, while Orme’s manner of writing set him apart from first-person eyewitness accounts, the reception of the History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan in the press indicates that the success of this work was owing to the symbiotic relationship (p. 305) of Orme’s ‘classical’ military history and the well-digested chorographical dissertation which he prefixed to it. Some reviewers were more interested in the actual History and some in the accompanying dissertation, but in both cases, Orme was commended for the character which he made as a historiographer.

Upon the first appearance of Orme’s History, The Critical Review found it ‘pleasing and perspicuous’ (249), ‘truly historical’, and ‘classical’ (258). Fifteen years later, The Monthly Review also praised the second volume as an example of ‘the true simplicity of historical narrative’, providing just enough detail ‘to fix the stamp of authenticity to the narrative, and to entitle the Author to the character of a faithful historian’ (431).

Orme’s favorable reception was perhaps partly based on tacit knowledge about his scholarly pursuits since, after establishing himself in Harley Street in 1760, Orme befriended numerous literary gentlemen of the day. Moreover, despite having left India on account of extortion charges, Orme still presented the East India Company in a favorable light. In contrast, though introducing himself (1) as an East India Company servant, Grose used his experience to criticize ‘the inexperience and aim at independence (38) in the appointed members of the several Courts’ in India, arguing that their authority was so dangerous that the Company’s royal charter had better not been obtained.

Moreover, Orme’s allegiance to the English company was no inhibition to becoming widely acclaimed abroad, as French and German reviewers praised his ‘liberal’ attitude and devotion to public rather than private interest. Thus, even though Orme’s History was about an Anglo-French conflict, Le journal des sçavans (677-679) found it devoid of national bias. Similarly, the preface to its ensuing French translation stressed that while misapprehended patriotism could entice historians to wrap their facts up in fables, this was not the case with Orme.

Another highly illuminating review in Allgemeine historische Bibliothek also commended the skillful, modest, and truthful manner in which Orme’s History described the characters of nations and individuals. Nevertheless, this review directed special attention to his dissertation of Indian customs, reading it as a summary of the current knowledge on this topic in Europe. The reviewer regretted that the English had not contributed more to such inquiries although they were not lacking capacity. This suggests that service in the EIC was perceived as an opportunity to communicate information that was both valuable and authentic. Indeed, the reviewer pointed out that no sources were listed for the military narrative itself, but the dissertation mentioned not only the well-known works of Herbelot and Bernier but also a lieutenant called Frazer, whose eye-witness character supported the authority of Orme’s words (222-234).

The perceived value (78) of Orme’s dissertation thus explains why some of its third section (24-27) ended up in the second edition of Grose’s Voyage – hidden away in the fifth book (336-338) to avoid the detection of plagiarism. While nothing suggests that this improved the status of the book in the literary market, it is striking how the recycled passages navigated around the question of sources, providing no assistance to critical readers. However, in all its ambiguity, especially the following excerpt (see also 162 here) was clearly relevant to on-going debates about the age and character of the Indian civilization:

Intelligent enquirers assert that there are no written laws amongst the Indians, but that a few maxims transmitted by tradition supply the place of such a code in the discussion of civil causes; and that the ancient practice, corrected on particular occasions by the good sense of the judge, decides absolutely in criminal ones.

Strikingly, Orme’s original dissertation was no more specific about the ‘intelligent enquirers’ whose assertions it invoked than Grose’s Voyage, because the strength Orme’s authorial voice was based on avoiding the interference of external references as well as refraining from the first-person statements. In so doing, it proved pleasant enough to stand the test of national rivalry in France and compelling enough to be favorably received in German translation as late as 23 years after its first appearance.

As Grose’s Voyage likewise appeared only belatedly in German, the Allgemeine deutsche Bibliothek complained that the observations it contained had already lost their novelty value. At this point, the translator’s copious references to further reading – including 18 works on Indian religion – only served to underline the outdated appearance of Grose’s Voyage, which the reviewer also perceived as dubiously unpatriotic (234-236). In a striking contrast, the adapted translation of Orme’s History, entitled Die Engländer in Indien (1786), was much more successful. Echoing to the translator Johann Wilhelm von Archenholz’s views (v-vi), the Historisch-politisches Magazin (13-14) noted that especially those Germans who practiced trade could easily sympathize with the English, and stressed the importance of becoming familiar with the ancient and cultivated Indian nation. This review fixed its attention to Orme’s dissertation, while that of the Allgemeine deutsche Bibliothek (202) celebrated Orme’s character as a military historian who, though English, could appreciate a great Frenchman.

Accordingly, the trajectory of Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan provides a further caveat to the notion of a sudden and sweeping turn to linguistics in eighteenth-century Orientalist scholarship. For according to his nineteenth-century biographer, Orme’s authority remained intact even though he had ‘little or no acquaintance with learned languages in Asia’, and therefore ‘appears’ to have relied on ‘his own actual observations’ (xxix). In addition, however, a comparison with the fate of Grose’s Voyage also suggests that much remains to be said about the concept of private interest in eighteenth-century travel writing, especially as regards its relation to the political nation.

Dr Laura Tarkka-Robinson studied history and comparative literature at the Universities of Helsinki, Hannover and Edinburgh, earning her PhD at the University of Helsinki in 2017. Currently a Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Intellectual History, University of Sussex, she is revising her doctoral thesis “Rudolf Erich Raspe and the Anglo-Hanoverian Enlightenment” to be published as a monograph while also working on a post-doctoral project concerning the transformative impact of eighteenth-century notions of ‘national character’ on the early-modern Republic of Letters. More generally, her research interests revolve around the transfer, translation and exchange of ideas, the construction of national literatures and cultures, as well as the scholarly use of travel literature and the conceptualisation of historical progress in the long eighteenth century.

Colonial Knowledge, South Asian Historiography, and the Thought of the Eurasian Minority

This is the fifth in a series of commentaries in our Graduate Forum on Pathways in Intellectual History, which is running this summer and fall. The first piece was by Andrew Klumpp, the second by Cynthia Houng, the third by Robert Greene II, and the fourth by Gloria Yu.

This last piece is by contributing writer Brent Howitt Otto, a PhD student in History at UC Berkeley.

It is hard to overstate the contemporary and enduring impact of British colonialism on the Indian Subcontinent. Bernard Cohn compellingly argued that the British conquest of India was a conquest of knowledge, as much as it was of land, peoples and markets. By combining the disciplinary tools of history and anthropology, Cohn helped birth a generation of historiography that has examined how the discursive categories of religion, caste and community (approximate to ‘ethnicity’ in South Asian usage) were deeply molded and in some instances created by the bureaucratic attempts to rationalize and systematize the exercise of colonial power over diverse peoples (Nicholas B. Dirks, Castes of Mind). These colonial knowledge systems not only helped colonial officials to think about India and Indians but has subsequently affected how Indians of all classes, castes and religions came to think about themselves in relation to one another and to the state. The anti-colonial nationalism of the late British Raj, far from freeing India of colonial categories and divisions, demonstrated their enduring and deepening power.

When discontent with British rule began to ferment in various forms of nationalist organizing and mobilization in the late nineteenth century, a preoccupation among Indian minorities—Muslims, Untouchables, Sikhs, and even the relatively small community of Eurasians (later known as Anglo-Indians)—emerged, that swaraj (self-rule) or indeed Independence would ultimately create a tyranny of the majority. Would the British Raj simply be replaced by a Hindu Raj, in which minorities would lose their already tenuous position in politics and society?


B. D. Ambedkar

Fear ran deepest among Muslims, who had been scapegoated by the British as the group responsible for the Sepoy Rebellion in 1857. Their fears were not irrational, for the Indian National Congress, as the largest expression of the nationalist movement, struggled to appear as anything but a party of English-educated elite Hindus. Despite Gandhi’s exhortation of personal moral conversion to a universal regard for all people, his message came packaged in the iconic form and practice of a deeply religious Hindu ascetic. Gandhi famously disagreed with the desire of B. D. Ambedkar, a leader of the Untouchables, to abolish the caste ‘system’. Muslims and other minorities called for ‘separate electorates,’ protected seats and separate voting mechanisms to ensure minorities were represented.

In part to pacify the anxieties of minorities and in part to further a ‘divide and rule’ agenda to prolong colonial rule, the British responded with a series of Round Table Conferences from 1930-32 in which India’s minorities represented their views. This resulted in the Communal Award of separate electorates for Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Indian Christians, Anglo-Indians, Europeans and Depressed Classes (Scheduled Castes). Gandhi’s opposition rested on the principle that Separate Electorates would only impede unity and sow greater division, both in the movement to end British rule and the hope of a unified nation thereafter. Yet in the Poona Pact of September 1932 Gandhi acquiesced to Separate Electorates while coercing Ambedkar through a fast unto death to renounce them for Dalits.


Mohammad Ali Jinnah

British colonial knowledge had constructed blunt categories of India’s minorities, which failed to acknowledge their internal diversity. Muslims included numerous sects, schools of jurisprudence, regions and languages. Eurasians were divided internally by region (north, south, Burma), occupation (railways, government services, private trade and industry), lineage (Portuguese, English, Dutch, French) and class. The same was true for other minorities, and yet the British insisted upon dealing with each group by recognizing an organization and its leader as the ‘sole spokesman’ for that ‘community’s’ interests. For Muslims it was Mohammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League (Ayesha Jalal, The Sole Spokesman). For Eurasians (Anglo-Indians) it was the president of the All India Anglo-Indian Association, under the leadership of Sir Henry Gidney (1919-42) and Frank Anthony (1942 onward), which by no means could claim membership sufficient to represent the interests of a majority of Anglo-Indians.

Who is allowed to speak for the group? Which voices are suppressed or silenced? These are crucial questions for historians who seek to make an accurate reconstruction of the textures and contours of a group’s thinking over time, of their unity and disunity, internal dynamics, the ways they see themselves and others. Otherwise the scholar will only be able to conjure up an historical narrative that coheres with the sympathies of power, but gets no closer to representing the group on its own terms. The archive is often limited in what it can say, for it too is a construction of power: the editorial discretion of a newspaper, the policy and practice of record keeping and classification in an organization or a government, and the status and education implicit in any literary production. This has been a foremost concern and debate of Subaltern historiography in South Asia (see the journal Subaltern Studies and Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?“), and a motivating problem addressed by Anthro-History.

The scholarship on the mixed-race of colonial South Asia manifests some of these problems. Some histories have been written by important Anglo-Indian leaders and politicians, such as Herbert Alick Stark and Frank Anthony, constituting less an academic history than their own rhetorical attempt to shape Anglo-Indians’ view of themselves and of others’ views of Anglo-Indians. Indeed, these constitute primary sources that portray particular dominant, though not representative perspectives of the community. Even serious academic studies have erred by leaning too heavily on official sources to substantiate the community’s attitudes (e.g., Alison Blunt, Domicile and Diaspora) or by inordinate attachment to a social scientific theory such as “marginality” to explain the social position and self-consciousness of Anglo-Indians, at times entertaining untenable generalizations and ignorance of facts (See Noel P. Gist and Roy Dean Wright, Marginality and Identity, or Paul Fredrick Cressey, “The Anglo-Indians“). Other studies are too narrowly focused on Anglo-Indians of a particular place and time to include very much dialogue with the greater Anglo-Indian community or with other interlocutors such as the state (e.g., Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt, In Search of a Homeland, or Robyn Andrews, Christmas in Calcutta).

The new monograph by Uther Charlton-Stevens, Anglo-Indians and Minority Politics in South Asia: Race, Boundary Making and Communal Nationalism (London: Routledge, 2018) is a deeply textured historical study of the Eurasian community over its lengthy history. Uninterested in presenting a uniform narrative, Charlton-Stevens digs deeply into diverse sources to show the various interlocutors that Anglo-Indians and their leaders had, and the often discordant opinions they took with respect to their own history, concepts of race, Indian nationalism, the colonial state, and plans for their post-colonial future. Anglo-Indians were neither univocal, nor insular. Views among Anglo-Indians were diverse and power over them was contested. Skillfully Charlton-Stevens traces these various crisscrossing strands that shows Anglo-Indians were embedded in a web of local, colonial and international discourses, and were interacting with and speaking about concepts as diverse and far reaching as notions of nation and national self-determination, Zionism, and eugenics. Although the community had a sole spokesman as far as government was concerned, the voices of dissenting and contesting positions were louder and clearer than prior scholarship has ever made out.

Charlton-Stevens refreshingly situates the question of Anglo-Indian identity in the crucial context of race and eugenical theories current from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries. He explores in depth the writings of two Anglo-Indian figures who were not community leaders, yet had complex articulations of mixed race. Millicent Wilson of Bangalore wrote arguing that Anglo-Indians’ whiteness (and thus superiority) should be acknowledged on the supposed grounds of the dominance of white genes, and thus their predominance in mixed-race people. Wilson regarded Americans and Australians as exemplars of the success of whitening an admittedly hybrid race. In effect she argued against extreme theories of racial purity, while continuing to support a concept of a racial hierarchy that presumed the relative superiority of whiteness (Charlton-Stevens, 177–79, 194–96). Though seldom referenced in other studies on Anglo-Indians, Charlton-Stevens shows that Wilson’s work was read and responded to by Anglo-Indians, and that she engaged in disputes with Anglo-Indian leaders and critiqued those who promoted Anglo-Indians emigration from India. Though not conforming to the official positions of the Anglo-Indian Association, Wilson surely represents a strand of Anglo-Indian thinking on race.

Quite different from Wilson’s belief in a racial hierarchy into which she wanted to insinuate Anglo-Indians as ‘white,’ stand the writings of Anglo-Indian social scientist Cedric Dover. Contesting the alleged superiority of racial purity, Dover argued instead hybridization promoted genetic vigor. He predicted that mixed races would therefore define the future and spell the ultimate end of racial difference. He was a vocal opponent of the Nazi eugenics of racial purity, while himself promoting the eugenics of genetic mixing. As for his own community of Anglo-Indians, Dover believed they should identify as ‘Eurasians,’ a more expansive category than ‘Anglo-Indian,’ and forge a pan-Eurasian solidarity with other Eurasians outside of British India. This view was largely at odds with the stated aims and positions of official leaders of the Community. While Dover’s book, which was most explicitly directed at Anglo-Indians, is noted in the historiography, Charlton-Stevens goes further to demonstrate the effects and resonances of Dover’s ideas and other works on Anglo-Indian discourse about themselves and their future. At the same time, by drawing on the work of Nico Slate’s Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012) he shows how Dover saw through his academic work in the United States and the examples of W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, a model of mixed-race success which supported his claims and which he recommended to Anglo-Indians (Charlton-Stevens, 191–96).

Then Charlton-Stevens carefully explores the numerous projects Anglo-Indians undertook as they prepared for a post-colonial future. Several schemes proposed for domestic colonial settlements—Abbott Mount (1920s), Whitefield (1882), McCluskigunge (1933) (Charlton-Stevens, 179–91). Others suggested overseas colonization—of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (in 1922–3 and 1946), or the creation of an “Eurasia” in the former German New Guinea with League of Nations support, an idea which surfaced in the 1930s and then again in the 1950s (196–206). The Anglo-Indian promoters of these projects envisioned a degree of self-sufficiency, “emancipation” from dependency and colonial oppression, a “national homeland”.  Through a close reading of correspondence, committee reports, organization records, and letters to the editor in Anglo-Indian and English-language church sponsored newspapers in India, Charlton-Stevens shows that these aims do not only have incidental resonance but direct connection with the larger international discourses on race, the post-World War I “balkanization” that came with ethnic or racial conceptions of nationality and national self-determination, and drew on foreign models such as the Zionist success in the Palestine Mandate. Finally, numerous other associations and individuals promoted emigration, contrary to the stated position of the All India Anglo-Indian Association to remain in India—especially in the two years between the end of World War II and Independence. This even included as unlikely a destination as Brazil: ideologically branded as “Mestizism,” its promoters believed that as a mixed-race Christian people they would be accepted in a largely mixed-race Christian country. Others mainly sought to settle elsewhere within the British Commonwealth.

These are but a few of the most significant contributions of Charlton-Stevens’ book, which I have selected because they break new ground by foregrounding that Anglo-Indians were diverse in their thought, despite being forced to accept a sole spokesman who at times was the target of considerable resistance. Moreover they engaged with broader Indian and international discourses. Charlton-Stevens achieved this textured treatment of the ideas of Anglo-Indians on their own terms by a close, broad and critical reading of the archive as well as (in parts not mentioned above) ethnographic work and oral history that highlights the value of non-textual sources to a thoroughgoing historic account that interrogates power, expects diversity, and eschews easy generalizations.

Brent Howitt Otto is a graduate student in UC Berkeley’s Department of History.

The Lives and Afterlives of Persianate Print: The Case of the Tuzuk-i Timuri and the Tuzuk-i Napoleon.

By guest contributor Tiraana Bains

Intellectual histories of India, particularly of the decades and centuries following the mid-eighteenth century, are often histories of Europe’s India: India as it was imagined and understood or misunderstood by Europeans. Representations, discourses, knowledge forms, and ideas, fundamentally and largely, remain subjects featuring European protagonists casting their gaze elsewhere. Both apologists and critics of empire, colonialism and racism have, in radically different ways, placed the ideas and presumptions of Europeans at the heart of their analysis. India’s Europe, on the other hand, as the brief concluding comment in Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s Europe’s India: Words, People, Empires 1500–1800 (Harvard University Press, 2017) reflects, remains all too shadowy and peripheral to the history of ideas and knowledge formation. Contrary to such historiographical tendencies, non-European actors living under the blaze of the British empire and colonial rule, regularly, and even mundanely, fashioned historiographies and crafted histories of both themselves and Europeans. What follows is merely a fragment.


Cover of a bilingual edition of the Tuzuk-i Timuri published in Calcutta in 1785
Source: Eighteenth Century Collections Online

In the year 1890–1891, two editions of the Tuzuk-i Timuri, a venerable Persian text with a remarkable history spanning centuries and spaces as distant as Central Asia, Bengal, and Britain, appeared in the Bombay book market. Released by two different publishers and booksellers, the two lithographs were not quite the same. One of the two differed quite sharply from all preceding published and manuscript copies of the Tuzuk-i Timuri. Published by the Chitra Prabha Press, this text had appended to it another account: the Tuzuk-i Napoleon. In catalogues this curious text is variously listed as the Tuzuk-i Timuri wa Tuzuk-i Napoleon or merely the Tuzuk-i Timuri. Within a decade, the act of braiding together these two histories had been undone. The Tuzuk-i Napoleon had appeared once again, this time shorn of its ties to the history and exploits of Amir Timur or Tamerlane, as he was known in some early modern European accounts and, to an extent, still continues to be. Published in Kabul by the royal publishing house or chapkhana-i shahi and dedicated to the Amir of Afghanistan, Abd al-Rahman Khan, it appeared with the slightly more specific title of Tuzuk-i Napoleon-i Awwal or the Institutes of Napoleon the First.



Title page of the Tuzuk-i Napoleon-i Awwal published in Kabul
Source: NYU Afghanistan Digital Library

The prominent Iranian émigré publisher, translator, author and bookseller Mirza Muhammad al-Kuttab Shirazi’s decision to juxtapose and literally bind together these two texts in 1891 undoubtedly offers an example of commercial flair in a bustling knowledge and print economy as well as yet another episode in a long and convoluted history of textual remaking and refashioning. The Tuzuk-i Timuri itself is an instantiation of an appendix, in all likelihood spurious and fabricated, gaining a longstanding significance of its own. An apparent Persian translation of a Turkish text, the Tuzuk-i Timuri or the “Institutes, Designs, and Enterprises” of Timur as it is often translated, seems to have first emerged in the seventeenth century, appended to the ostensible and equally fabricated autobiographical account of Timur’s life, the Malfuzat-i Timuri or Waq‘iat-i Timuri.  By the late eighteenth century, in Bengal and Britain, the Tuzuk-i Timuri had been refashioned yet again, reimagined as a constitutional text, deployed to debate governance and British imperium in the nominally Mughal provinces of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. While an English translation of the text accompanied by the Persian translation of an apparent Turkic original appeared in Calcutta, newspapers in London noted parliamentary controversy between Edmund Burke and Warren Hastings over the apparent foundational principals of Oriental governance contained in the Tuzuk. Not unlike the Tuzuk-i Timuri, the appended Tuzuk-i Napoleon from 1891 was also a translation, broadly drawn from a text known as The Military Maxims of Napoleon.


Napoleon Bonaparte

Importantly, Shirazi’s decision to place an account of Napoleon’s military and political exploits alongside and in addition to the Tuzuk-i Timuri indicates a distinct conception of history. While this juxtaposition of a fourteenth century Turco-Mongol figure who established dominion over large chunks of the Perso-Islamic world and beyond, and an eighteenth-nineteenth century Corsican-French personage is certainly redolent of a romantic view of heroic conquerors across centuries, the fact of their textual company and shared Persianate rendering is also evidence of the imbrication and entanglement of diverse histories, regardless of nineteenth century narratives of divergent civilizational paradigms to the contrary. The textual meeting, translation and entanglement of Timur and Napoleon is replicated in the unfolding of this Persian translation of Napoleon’s maxims. More straightforward word-for-word translations of the conditions in which Napoleon mastered the conduct of war are interspersed with anecdotes and examples drawn from histories closer home – those of ancient Iran and India, and wars fought between Ottoman and Safavid armies. Such acts of conjoining and incorporating such histories were hardly new at the dawn of the 1890s.


Shah Alam II

A large corpus of Persian and South Asian vernacular material points to the remaking of categories and contours of knowledge through the appropriation and incorporation of European histories and, in turn, the reworking of such histories. An intriguing example is that of the Tuzuk-i Walajahi, a Persian court chronicle produced under the aegis of the Nawab of Arcot, Muhammad Ali Khan Walajah, in the late-eighteenth century. The opening pages of the chronicle announce, unsurprisingly enough, the Nawab’s relation to the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II, whose deputy he was, nominally at least, meant to be. The invocation of the Mughal emperor was also, however, quickly followed by a declaration of the Nawab’s close ties to the British King George III, “a brother dear as life.” Moreover, deeper in the text one finds a detailed genealogical history not of the Timurid or Mughal dynasty but the kings and queens of England. The exposition concludes with a narrative of the reign of George III, an account that seems to have been a standard description in entirely different genres of Persian writing, including works of geography such as Bilgrami’s late eighteenth century Hadiqat al-Aqlim. In the nineteenth century, the assimilation of the Hanoverians and George III into a Persian textual corpus came to a head with the publication, in Bombay, of Firuz ibn Kavus’ Jarjnama or George-nama, an epic three-volume history in verse of the Hanoverians and the British conquest of India in the style of the Persian epic poem, the Shahnama.

The publication of the Tuzuk-i Napoleon-i Awwal in Kabul marks another chapter in this history of translation, transmission and textual remaking. While the core of the Kabul text is the same as that of the Bombay edition, the introductory and concluding notes emphatically demonstrate its status as a document of state, articulating the Afghan state’s commitment to muscular state-making. In Bombay, the valence of a text such as the Tuzuk-i Timuri wa Tuzuk-i Napoleon would have been entirely different – merely one text among many. Another Persian history of Amir Timur’s life and exploits drawn from the famous Habib al-Siyar was even featured on the syllabus for a Bachelor of Arts degree at Bombay University. Meanwhile other histories of Napoleon had appeared in vernacular languages like Gujarati – booksellers and publishers in Bombay published books in several languages including English, Urdu, Marathi, Kannada, Hindi and Sanskrit besides Persian and Gujarati. We are aware of the sheer range and diversity of texts printed in Bombay and elsewhere across British South Asia due to the legal requirement imposed by the British government that all publications be registered and catalogued (many of these government issued catalogues have been digitized by a team working at the British Library and constitute a rich historical source). The clear imprint of the hand of the British imperial state in the book business in Bombay notwithstanding, the stamp of the state is all the more pronounced in the case of books published in Kabul. This is partly due to the large number of books and pamphlets published by the royal publishing house that outlined the Amir Abd al-Rahman’s vision for Afghanistan as well as his achievements as sovereign. Amidst the heavy emphasis on a strong Afghan state, there are also clear indications of Kabul’s position in a broader nexus of Persianate circulation. As even a cursory search through NYU’s Afghanistan Digital Library shows, a range of texts originating in British India including agricultural treatises on the cultivation of tobacco and sericulture translated into Persian in Calcutta, circulated in Kabul.


Photo of Carnac Road Bombay in 1881 by Lala Deen Dayal. Source: British Library.

Besides its obvious curiosity, what the publication of Tuzuk-i Napoleon and its companion text do demonstrate, not unlike the many other texts discussed in Nile Green’s seminal Bombay Islam, is the persistent vitality of Persian and Persianate literacy well past official British disavowals of the language and in spite of Thomas Babington Macaulay’s “Minute upon Indian Education” in the first half of the nineteenth century. The movement and translation of such texts also reveals geographies partly underpinned by institutions of colonial governance but hardly exhausted by the contours of political maps. Finally, they gesture to the work that still needs to be done to excavate, and take the ideas and practices of non-Europeans seriously. Examining how people with an allegedly limited sense of history chose to think about and even refashion and market histories of persons and spaces both far and near is an obvious place from which to continue this work.

Tiraana Bains is a doctoral candidate in history at Yale University. 

The strange peregrination of a Latin noun: tribus from Italy to India

By guest contributor Professor Sumit Guha

This essay addresses the shifting connection between signifier and signified, word and thing, by looking at the history of an important and yet so protean sociological term: ‘tribe’. My argument is that  ‘tribe’ is a ‘fossil word’ whose content has been replaced through centuries, just as a fossil’s soft tissue has been replaced by mineral compounds. In the process, it has changed to conform with the soil where it has lain. It is these shifts and their underlying discourses that I want to present in this post. In South Asia, the term was also in recent centuries permeated by traits based on the race theories of imperial-age Europe. It has therefore acquired a different connotation in the Republic of India than it has anywhere else. I begin however with its renewed presence in American public discourse now.

Tribes are in vogue (and even in Vogue) nowadays.  Their primordial existence is invoked by journalists and academics to explain mass behavior today. This is of course not new: in the age of modernization theory (after World War II) ‘tribalism’ was frequently invoked to explain the political behavior of ‘not yet modern’ (read non-Western) peoples. Modernization would dissolve all that. John Locke wrote that in the beginning, all was as America: Francis Fukuyama that in the end all would be. History has proved more complex, and back in the USA, ‘tribalism’ is the word of the day. Nations disintegrate and states fail, but ‘Tribalism’ has frequently invoked ever since the U.S. election of 2016 to explain political behavior.

I will show how the same word has come to have distinct referents within and outside the modern Republic of India. As an exercise in the history of ideas, I will look at how and why this came about by bringing to light the racial theories in which the Indian understanding originated.

is well known, tribus is an old Latin noun, originally applied to the divisions of the people by the ancient Romans. It has been suggested that it was originally a compound meaning ‘the three peoples’ or ‘three orders’, though the number of Roman tribes later increased to over thirty. The word entered many European languages during the medieval period. In English we find it in a 1752 thesaurus, and it was used (from Hebrew) as a name for the twelve divisions of the people of Israel as described in Exodus and elsewhere.

After 1510, the Portuguese controlled all sea-borne European access to the Indian Ocean  for almost a century. Asian ships largely sailed under stringent conditions that came with Portuguese permits. The Portuguese arrived at the beginning of the print revolution in the West. Western knowledge of Asia was mediated through Portuguese (and for the learned, Latin). Portuguese became a lingua franca around the littoral. The British commander Robert Clive addressed his Indian soldiery in that language in 1757.  The social category of tribe (tribus) was however, little used by the Portuguese despite their Latin heritage. Other than ‘casta’ – a sociological term common to both Portuguese and Spanish empires–communities were usually called. Both terms referred to ‘people’ in the loosest sense of the term.

But the word ‘tribe’ was early employed by the major South Asian colonial power: Britain. That usage likely came from literate Protestants’ familiarity with the English Bible. But it was still loosely used to mean an ethno-political  grouping. We therefore find great nomenclatural confusion in early English documents. The English East India Company took over the formerly Portuguese-ruled island of Bombay in 1665 and a few years later the governor wrote to his superiors that there were several different ‘nations’ (also described as ‘orders or tribes’) inhabiting the . (I have modernized his orthography by expanding abbreviations; all emphases added.)

[I]n order to preserve the Govern[ment] in constant regular method, free from that confusion which a body composed of so many nations will be subject to, it were requisite [that] [the] severall nations at pres[ent] inhabiting or hereafter to inhabit on the Island of Bombay be reduced or modelled into so many orders or tribes, & that each nation may have a Cheif (sic) or Consull of the same nation appointed over them by the Gover[nor] and Councell…

The distinctive twentieth-century anthropological use of ‘tribe’ and ‘caste’ was still absent as late as the 1820s. For example, in 1823, Thomas Marshall reporting to the Government of Bombay, wrote of one district: ‘the Weavers are either of the tribe of Lingayut [a religious community] or of another Kanaree tribe called Hutgur …’ (p.18). Today both of these would be classified as ‘castes’. He went on ‘the tribe of Bunyas [ a generic term for all Hindu and Jain merchant castes] educated to reading and accompts being unknown here ..’ (p.24).

To add to the confusion, any descent group could also be labeled ‘race’ – so Marshall writes that ‘a respectable Mahratta [today both an ethnonym and a caste-name] (to which race the institution is confined) …’ (p.83). From North India in the same period we find two Muslim communities self-classified as Sheikh [Arabic ‘chief’; used in India by many Muslims as a status label and Sayyad [descendant of the Prophet] referred to as races: ‘The village is divided into two [sections], corresponding with the two races (sic) by which it is occupied …’ This ethnographic looseness had however little administrative effect. (I have discussed English nineteenth century usage of ‘race’ elsewhere.)  Its practical unimportance is why it was allowed to persist. But some officials realized that tribal organization could frame political life in some parts of Southern Asia. Once social categories became administrative ones it became necessary to label clearly and describe exactly.

Mountstuart Elphinstone, one of Marshall’s superior officers in Bombay (later Governor there) and realized the sociopolitical importance of sociological clarity during his visit to the then Eastern Afghanistan in 1808-10. (Shah Shuja refused him permission to go further than Peshawar but he indefatigably interviewed travelers, merchants, Afghan immigrants into India and others when compiling his account.  I have discussed Elphinstone in a recent publication.)  He noted the centrality of ‘tribal’ organization to the political life of the region and this led him to try and label it accurately. So he wrote (all emphases added):

I beg my readers to remark, that hereafter, when I speak of the great divisions of the Afghauns, I shall call them tribes ; and when the component parts of a tribe are mentioned with reference to the tribe, I shall call the first divisions clans : those which compose a clan, Khails, &c, as above. But when I am treating of one of those divisions as an independent body, I shall call it Oolooss, and its component parts clans, khails, &c, according to the relation they bear to the Oolooss, as if the latter were a tribe. Khail is a corruption of the Arabic word Khyle, a band or assemblage ; and Zye, so often affixed to the names of tribes, clans, and families, means son, and is added as Mac is prefixed by the [Scots]Highlanders.

(Oolooss/ulus was a term popularized across the 13th century Mongol Empire to refer to an aggregate of tribe and their grazing domain.)

Elphinstone wrote of the founder-king, King Ahmed Shah Durrani (ruled 1747-1772), that he had been wise enough to know that it would need less exertion to conquer all the neighboring countries (i.e. Elphinstone’s ‘great divisions’) of Afghanistan. Ahmed Shah founded a state that, while designated a monarchy, functioned as a confederation of tribes and chiefdoms (khanates) held together by the Shah’s redistribution of tribute and plunder from the region extending from western Uttar Pradesh to the Khyber Pass. In the nineteenth century, British and Russian arms and subsidies enabled the kings to acquire more authority. But that broke down with the overthrow of the monarchy and then of all settled government in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Over much of the world therefore, “tribe” has generally referred to strong organizations, often possessing much latent military power. Nor should we view this as a situation confined to specific regions of West Asia or North Africa. Decades ago, Owen Lattimore provocatively suggested that from their beginnings, civilizations gave birth to the barbarian tribes that they then sought to subdue or to exclude, and by whom they were periodically conquered. Tribes (he argued) emerged out of simple bands of foragers or farmers because emerging empires preyed upon small unorganized communities for slaves, encroached on their territories, or sought to incorporate them as servile peasants.

afridi tribesmen

Afridi tribesmen, 1878, from Wikimedia Commons

Tribes might also take shape out of conquering war-bands. The area northeast of Delhi, for example (now known as Rohilkhand), lost its medieval name (Katehar) in the eighteenth century as warrior-bands called Rohilla displaced the local Katehriya Rajput gentry that had tenaciously resisted the power of Delhi from the thirteenth century. The Rohillas in turn, maintained the local tradition of resistance to central power well into the British colonial period. But there was no original Rohilla tribe in Afghanistan. As Jos Gommans has demonstrated in his contribution to the volume for D.H.A. Kolff, the early Indian Rohillas had themselves assembled a ‘tribal’ community out of various Afghan war bands and miscellaneous local slaves drawn into the following of Daud Khan, a horse-trader turned soldier of fortune turned tribal chieftain.

‘Tribe’ is an important category in modern South Asia, especially in the Republic of India. Nandini Sundar, an important Indian academic recently published a valuable edited volume on the 100 million-plus people classed as members of ‘Scheduled Tribes’ in India. This part of the post only looks at the origins of this term and the evolution of its unusual usage in the India, one so distinct from that in other parts of the Old World.

The Republic has followed a late colonial classification, one that began by defining ‘tribes’ as This strain of thought originated in late colonial times and derived from the now abandoned effort to apply geological models of stratification to contemporary social organization. We find it exemplified in the work of the missionary ethnographer John Wilson. It was transferred to the hilly forests of Central India by the British official Charles Grant who also incorporated the emerging “Nordic” and “Aryan race” theory.

The rise of nationalism and its critiques of colonial rule increasingly irked the British imperial government. One of the ideological responses was to argue that various Indian communities needed the benevolent protection of the Empire against the oppressions of other Indians, especially those critical of the Empire. This discourse naturally gravitated to the communities already declared to be . By the early twentieth century that led to special protection for such peoples and thus began the movement towards a conception of tribes as composed of simple, timid and primitive peoples whose special traits made them deserving of protection by the British government of India. As I have written elsewhere, the government wanted to counter nationalist agitations by presenting itself as the protector of the simple aborigines against oppression by their fellow-Indians. One effect of this was the creation of ‘excluded areas’ beyond the inner frontiers, where ordinary law and civil process did not operate and the executive had wide powers. The separate existence of such areas was gradually terminated after Indian independence, but special measures of affirmative action were enshrined in the new Constitution (1950).

However, the defining traits of ‘tribal’ communities were taken from colonial ethnography. Thus India’s tribes are defined and have been officially defined since at least the 1960s in ways detailed in Sundar’s Introduction to her book. Megan Moodie recently pointed out that “shyness” was an important identifying trait. This has had real-world consequences for communities seeking inclusion in this category. For example, the failure of the Gurjar or Gujar community of northern India to display the necessary traits led a judicial commission appointed by the Government of Rajasthan to deny them entry into the list of Scheduled Tribes for that state.  That commission reiterated the conclusions of an earlier report submitted to the government on 20 August 1981, which had said of them: “They are fairly well-off and suffer from no shyness of contact with people of other castes. Also, they do not have any primitive traits (for them) to be considered for inclusion in [Scheduled Tribe] ”.

Thus the same sociological term has radically different meanings. A few hundred miles west of the Indian border, adjoining Afghanistan, lies what was (until recently) known as  Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA). Its residents have never been known for shyness or timidity: indeed, quite the opposite. It is here that we find the direct descendants of the ‘tribes’ that Elphinstone observed in 1810. Two hundred years later, they are still political and military communities that play a major part in the public life of Afghanistan and, to a lesser degree of Pakistan.

Sumit Guha is Professor of History at The University of Texas at Austin. He is indebted to Derek O’Leary for two careful readings and many good suggestions.

“To seek God in all things”: The Jesuit encounter with botany in India

By contributing writer Joseph Satish V

Only a month after India gained independence from the British in 1947, the Indian botanist Debabrata Chatterjee wrote of his

hope that in the new India the Government will… effect among other things the early revival of the Botanical Survey of India. If it is possible to recruit men of knowledge and qualities of those giants of the past… no man of science in India need doubt that the revival of the Survey would be of the greatest help and of far-reaching benefits to India.

In 1954, the first independent Government of India appointed the taxonomist Hermegild Santapau as its Chief Botanist and Director.  Santapau had a PhD in Botany from the London University, had worked at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew (England), was a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London, editor of the Journal of the Bombay Museum of Natural History, and a Professor of Botany. His services to reviving botany and science education in the country were recognized with the award of the Padma Shri from the Government of India. But this “giant” was neither British nor Indian — he was a Catholic Jesuit priest from Spain. Fr. Santapau was only one of the many Jesuits who established a legacy of “Jesuit science” in India after the religious order was “restored” in 1814.

Ignatius at the River Cardoner - By Dora Nikolova Bittau in Chapel of St Ignatius, Seattle University

Ignatius at the River Cardoner .By Dora Nikolova Bittau, in the Chapel of St. Ignatius, Seattle University

The Society of Jesus is a religious congregation of Catholic clerics founded by Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) in 1540. Only two years later, Francis Xavier (1506-1552), one of Ignatius’ first companions, reached Goa on the western coast of India. When Ignatius died sixteen years later, the number of Jesuits had grown to a thousand members around the world. With a unique “way of proceeding“, the Jesuits established themselves firmly in secular culture — arts, astronomy, anthropology, even naval architecture — all “for the greater glory of God“. However, the growing influence of the Jesuits in the Church, State, and society caused resentment in many of Catholic Europe’s nations (chiefly Portugal, Spain, and France), which led to the Suppression of the Jesuits by Pope Clement XIV in 1773. Forty-one years later though, Pope Pius VII restored the Society in 1814.

Scholarship in the history of the Jesuits has witnessed a significant shift in the past few decades. Since the 1980s, the number of non-Jesuit (also non-Catholic) scholars interrogating what has come to be called “Jesuit science” has increased. Historians of Jesuit science have generally explored the relationship between the Jesuit missionary goals and their scientific activity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, often portraying the Jesuits as ‘transmitters’ of European science to the colonies in the New World. Steven J. Harris’s description of early modern Jesuit science continues to be used as a universal description of Jesuit science across space and time. But some scholars have begun arguing the case for a more nuanced engagement with regional variants of Jesuit science.

Dhruv Raina explains that the European Jesuits who arrived in South Asia not only transmitted European science but also discovered, collected, and interpreted indigenous knowledge in the colonies. Agustin Udias argues for a broader exploration of Jesuit science in the post-Restoration period beyond Europe. It is worth exploring, even briefly, why post-1814 Jesuit science is considered different in comparison to early modern Jesuit science.

After 1814, the “new” Jesuits of the restored Society found themselves in an alien scientific landscape, which, among other things, was characterized by the emergence of specialized disciplines and “professionals” who were paid to pursue science. Subsequently, the Jesuits reinvented themselves as a teaching order in schools and colleges across the world. But they were forced to shift from the eclectic scientific tradition of their past to the new disciplines like seismology in North America and the “new botany” (laboratory-based botany research) in England and Germany. It was also in this period that the Jesuits returned to India – a group of Belgian Jesuits came to the eastern coast and set up the Bengal Mission in 1834. Later in 1837, the French Jesuits established the Madurai Mission in southern India. While the sixteenth-century Jesuits interacted with Hindu kings and Mughal emperors, now the Jesuits were obligated to cooperate with the British Empire. However, one feature remained common to the scientific enterprise of the “old” and the “new” Jesuits in India: collecting plant specimens.

Harris notes that medical botany – identifying local plants and their benefits for health reasons – was fairly consistent across all the early Jesuit missions. In India, the Jesuits in early modern Goa acquainted themselves with the native medical traditions – the Portuguese physician Garcia de Orta (1500-1568) provided the first instance of the exchange between European and Ayurvedic medical systems. The early Jesuits to India lived as pilgrims, moving between villages and kingdoms, and evangelized the natives. In the process the Jesuits gained knowledge about the local customs, including that of native plants which they consumed as food or medicine. The restored Jesuits were no longer evangelizers but educators of the evangelized. They established training houses (novitiates) for teaching candidates for the priesthood (novices) in subjects that included philosophy, theology as well as the natural and physical sciences. Training in the natural sciences included collecting, identifying and preserving different flora and fauna. Yet, the focus on nature and the sciences was not only necessitated by the educational mission of the Jesuits; it was an integral part of their “spiritual” training.

Ignatius of Loyola believed that one could experience God in the natural world. He writes in his autobiography that he had spiritual experiences while gazing at nature, be it the stars in the night sky or the Cardoner river in his native Spain. Ignatius maintained notes of these experiences, reflected upon them, and later felt that “some things which he used to observe in his soul and found advantageous could be useful also to others, and so he put them into writing”. This took the form of a series of contemplative exercises called the Spiritual Exercises which later became the foundation for the compulsory spiritual training of the Jesuit novices and continues to be so.

The goal of the Spiritual Exercises was (and is) to help the Jesuit to identify his vocation in life. Guided by a spiritual director in solitude, the novice was urged “to use his senses, particularly sight to fix their mental gaze upon the scene of the meditation” during each exercise. Following this, the novice was expected to write down notes of his contemplative experience, like Ignatius did, and maintain an “observational” record of his spiritual experiences. The acme of the exercises was the ‘Contemplation to Attain Love‘ in the Fourth Week where the novice was asked to consider: “… how God dwells in creatures; in the elements, giving them existence; in the plants, giving them life; in the animals, giving them sensation; in human beings, giving them intelligence …” This tradition of contemplating “how God dwells in” nature remained unchanged in the restored Society. This along with an emphasis on silence and solitude encouraged Jesuits to establish their formation houses amidst pristine natural habitats. It was for this reason that the French Jesuits established their novitiate in Shembaganur (1877) close to Kodaikanal, a south Indian hill station favored by the British.

Hand painted plate by Anglade 1919 - Courtesy Rapinat Herbarium Trichy

Hand painted plate by Anglade, 1919. Courtesy Rapinat Herbarium Trichy

Less than a decade before the Shembaganur novitiate was established, the British taxonomist Joseph Dalton Hooker had completed his botanical expedition in the Himalayas and published several illustrated flora (1871). The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew outside London became “the center of a worldwide network of colonial gardens”. Acknowledging these developments, the French Jesuits (who had already received some training in the natural sciences in Europe) promoted the teaching and learning of the biological sciences at Shembaganur. A part of the novice’s education also included plant taxonomy; the novices had to venture into the nearby Palni hills to identify and collect plant specimens. The young novices had several Jesuits to guide and inspire them. Pierre Labarthere (1831–1904)  cultivated botanical gardens on the novitiate premises (of course, with the help of the novices). Emile Gombert (1866–1948) collected orchids and established a garden dedicated to orchids (which survives till date). Louis Anglade (1873–1953) documented local plants through a collection of nearly 2000 paintings. George Foreau (1889–1959) assembled a collection of mosses, lichens, algae, and fungi while Alfred Rapinat (1892–1959) collected flowering plants and ferns. These Jesuits and the young novices often sent plant specimens to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew for proper identification. Santapau, though not a resident of Shembaganur, had begun his life’s work at the Kew Garden. Soon enough, the French Jesuits encouraged the young novices to interact with Santapau, who was then in the Jesuit college of St. Xavier’s at Bombay (1940). It was only expected that the younger Jesuits would follow his botanical legacy.

Jesuits with the oldest tree on the Palni Hills 1903 - Courtesy Rapinat Herbarium Trichy

Jesuits with the oldest tree on the Palni Hills, 1903. Courtesy Rapinat Herbarium Trichy.

As a young novice at the Sacred Heart College, KM Matthew (1930-2004) was acquainted with botanical surveys in Shembaganur. With the nomination of Santapau to the Botanical Survey of India, Mathew was encouraged to pursue his doctoral research with the senior botanist. In 1962, under the supervision of Santapau, KM Matthew became the first Indian Jesuit to acquire a PhD in botany, focusing on the alien plants of the Palni Hills. In 1963, another pupil of Santapau, Cecil Saldanha (1926-2002) was awarded his PhD for his thesis on Taxonomic Revision of the Scrophulariaceae of Western Peninsular India. Like Santapau, both the Jesuits made significant contributions to plant taxonomy: KM Mathew published the four-volume Flora of Tamil Nadu Carnatic (1981-1988) while Saldanha published Flora of the Hassan District, Karnataka (1976).

Matthew and Saldanha were among the first Indian Jesuits to engage with science in a globalized, industrial era, where science and technology came to be seen as intertwined with “social, political and cultural issues of societal relevance”. Observing the wider implications of modern science and technology for the Catholic Church, its bishops observed at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) that “if these instruments (of science and technology) are rightly used they bring solid nourishment to the human race”. After Vatican II, the Jesuit Superior General of the Jesuits, Pedro Arrupe (1907-1991) named the first delegate for what came to be known as the “scientific apostolate” of the Jesuits. In 1979, the Jesuit scientists of India, Nepal and Sri Lanka came together to organize the first ever meeting of south Asian Jesuit scientists. Responding to a report of this meeting, Arrupe noted the “apostolic aspect of the Jesuit [s]cientist’s work” and emphasized the need for Indian Jesuits “to reflect more on Indian problems”. This provides a hint of how the “new” Jesuit scientific activity became “localized” in the backdrop of the Catholic Church’s wider embrace of modern science and technology. Further investigation of how Jesuit science is manifested locally in the context of a global missionary ethos is required, especially with respect to Jesuit botany in southern India.

Contemporary Jesuit botanists in India have widened their horizons beyond the plant taxonomy of their French mentors. This engagement has extended into specialized terrains like molecular systematics and agricultural biotechnology for solving “Indian problems” like drought, crop pests and diseases, extinction of native flora, and deforestation. While Jesuits have also ventured into the twenty-first century (and contentious) disciplines like genetic engineering, there is little scholarship on how the trajectory of Jesuit biological sciences evolved in India. The establishment of the Shembaganur novitiate and the arrival of European Jesuits like Santapau signify a milestone for exploring the dawn of post-Restoration Jesuit science in southern India.

The election of the first Jesuit Pope (Francis) in 2013 has renewed interest in Jesuit studies. Historians of Jesuit science and historians of post-colonial science could consider stepping into this uncharted domain of why the quintessential Jesuit botanist did what he did in independent India. Young historians of Jesuit science must wonder why then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi observed after Santapau’s death in 1970 that:

In Rev. Fr. Santapau’s death we have lost an eminent scholar who has served education and science for over 40 years. His deep love for India urged him to become a citizen of the country. He had a great knowledge of, and concern for, our plant wealth and wrote intensively on it for experts and laymen. May his memory long continue to inspire all those interested in our flora.

Joseph Satish V is a PhD student in Science, Technology and Society Studies (STS) at the Centre for Knowledge, Culture and Innovation Studies (CKCIS), University of Hyderabad, India. His research focuses on the work of Jesuit scientists in the botanical sciences in independent India.