Think Piece

Is There a Social History of Indian Liberalism?

By Anirban Karak

Histories of liberal thought in India begin, almost invariably, in the early nineteenth century with Rammohan Roy (1772-1833) and James Silk Buckingham (1786-1855). Both men were vocal supporters of social and political reform in colonial India and Britain alike, and are considered pioneers of the Indian press. As self-identified liberals, Roy, Buckingham, and their followers were part of a common front against the reactionary regimes of the post-Napoleonic period and bound together by networks of direct communication. They advocated for a dismantling of the East India Company’s monopolistic privileges in the name of free trade, and criticized restrictions on vernacular newspapers and racial prejudice in the appointment of company officials. For liberals of this generation, colonial institutional reform was just one front in a larger battle between the forces of reaction and the forces of progress, whether in Bolivia, France, or Britain. They indeed formed a new public, infused by the republican spirit of the American and French revolutions, and worked tirelessly to open up a space of commercial participation and mutuality between Indians and Europeans.

To a large extent, then, the conventional periodization of Indian liberalism is almost self-evident. The early nineteenth century was clearly the moment when a self-conscious and articulate anti-absolutist public sphere first emerged in India. It is not enough, however, to point out the distinctiveness of that specific moment. Without an analysis of the social roots of Indian liberalism, it is difficult to sort out the true legacy of the early liberals, a problem that has been compounded by the stranglehold of nationalist frameworks on historical imagination. One particularly unsalutary effect of this “territorial nativism” on historical memory, to borrow a phrase from Manu Goswami, has been the increasing hostility with which the internationalist ethos of the early liberals, and especially their “collaboration” with Europeans, has been treated. Although the first generation of nationalist historians – unable to deny the contributions of the early liberals to the creation of a democratic culture in India – were defensive on the issue of “collaboration,” the tide has turned quite definitively since the 1970s. Beginning in that decade, historians launched a critique of the early liberals, accusing them of being naive visionaries at best and willing conspirators at worst. Despite some notable and important exceptions to the general trend in Andrew Sartori’s and C.A. Bayly’s scholarship, Rammohan and others now stand accused, in most accounts, of having been privileged “elites” who failed to realize the complicity of liberalism with empire. The mirror image of these claims is that early nineteenth century “popular” culture had no liberal (read “European”) ideological content.

Raja Rammohan Roy, painting by Sibnath Sastri, 1907

But is it really true that liberal norms found no practical and social relevance in India? Can the political convictions of the early liberals really be dismissed as the ramblings of a few elites? A closer look at eighteenth-century Bengal, and especially at the neglected social history of demands from below for commercial liberties, suggests a very different story.  

Under Mughal rule, market taxes (called sair in official Persian) were an important component of state revenue in much of northern India including Bengal. In addition, the right of state could be evoked (usually by local administrators but sometimes by regional Nawabs or the emperor too) to justify blatantly arbitrary exactions. As Eugenia Vanina has put it, Mughal nobles and local chiefs who molested traders treated them “much like the knights in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe treated Isaac of York.” (215). Economic as well as cultural historians, however, have tended to underplay these conflicts within the social fabric of pre-colonial Bengal. This has allowed for a portrayal of both the East India Company (EIC) and Indian society as homogeneous entities, and hence for the propagation of straightforwardly nationalist readings of disputes between the company and the Nawabs of Bengal.

In an extremely influential 1998 study, for example, Sudipta Sen claimed that for Bengal’s merchants, “impositions on markets, market goers, and goods were accepted features of rural life.” (49-50) In other words, readers are asked to believe that despite heavy impositions on commerce, market culture in pre-colonial Bengal was largely consensual, and that exchange was “part of a larger moral economy of prestation that characterize(d) the relationship between rulers and subordinates.” (12) The judgment that follows from such claims is that liberal arguments for “free trade” in the late eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries were nothing more than ideological justifications for empire.

Sen’s interpretation, however—which has made a lasting impression not only on economic and political historians of Bengal, but also on scholars of religion, including recent works by Hugh B. Urban, Bhaskar Mukhopadhyay, and Kaustubh Mani Sengupta—does not do justice to the complexity of social relations in eighteenth-century Bengal for at least three reasons. First, one ought to remember that the rapid growth of the city of Calcutta during the first half of the eighteenth century created the possibility for “collaboration” between British and Indian merchants, and for the emergence of a liberal politics of free trade in Bengal much before Rammohan Ray was even born. In the decades immediately preceding colonial rule in Bengal, artisans, merchants, and indigenous officials alike migrated in large numbers to Calcutta, often from places as far away as Dhaka and Murshidabad. The result was a gradual transformation of Calcutta into a commercial rather than an agricultural center. Between 1713 and 1747, for example, the proportion of market taxes to total revenue from the town increased from 13 to 37 per cent, even as total revenue itself increased by about 80 per cent, as Farhat Hasan has shown. The growth of Calcutta and of other factory towns with European presence meant that by the 1720s, the interests of British and Indian merchants were thoroughly enmeshed with regard to both foreign and inland trade. The sale of dastaks (passes that allowed duty-free trade)to non-Englishmen was a massive “business,” but one conducted strictly on the private account of the EIC’s servants. As early as 1720, the EIC’s gomastah (agent) Raghunandan was arrested for protecting the goods of other merchants from the payment of customs dues under the Company dastak. Indian merchants also sought refuge in Calcutta under the EIC to evade duties, and in 1755, a group of merchants claimed that they should be shielded from the Nawab’s demands for taxes while “under the protection of the Hon. English Flag.”[1]

A Calcutta Passage Boat, via British Library. Digitized image from “Narrative of a journey through the Upper Provinces of India from Calcutta to Bombay 1824-25. (With notes upon Ceylon.) An account of a journey to Madras and the Southern Provinces, 1826, and letters written in India” by Reginald Heber, 1783-1826. London.

Second, the Indian merchants to whom free trade and company protection mattered the most came from modest backgrounds. For great merchant and banking elites, such as the Armenian Khwaja Wazid and the Jagat Seths (an honorific title meaning “bankers to the world”), private trade was a major nuisance because it threatened to weaken their monopoly control over trade and currency. It was the smaller traders who lacked access to the Nawab’s court that stood to benefit the most from attaching themselves to the company. A large number of such traders, lacking monopoly farms and royal favour, dealt primarily in subsistence goods such as rice for the internal market of Bengal, acting as middlemen between rural production and local hats (periodic markets) and ganjs (market towns).

Finally, the belief that Mughal officials in Bengal were proud defenders of the law is untenable, for there is ample evidence that illegal tolls and taxes were very often no more than bribes demanded by revenue officials.[2] In short, not only was the “conflict” in the eighteenth century not a simple binary one between the EIC and the Mughal state, Sudipta Sen’s claim that refusals to pay duties (whether by the EIC or by Asians) constituted “a travesty of the rules of gift and exchange in the merchant-aristocratic society of contemporary northern India,” (62-63) is itself based on the implausible belief that all taxation was justified, whose evasion can therefore only be interpreted as a crime. On the contrary, the heavy-handedness of the pre-colonial state was, in fact, the first object of proto-liberal critique in Bengal.

This social interpretation of internal conflicts within Bengal’s emergent commercial society fits well with recent revisionist readings of the ideological roots of the Second British Empire.[3] Broadly, the revisionists have shown that both in 1757 and in the years immediately preceding 1765, a faction of free traders within the EIC along with their Indian counterparts tried to radically reorder political institutions in ways that would allow commercial enterprise to flourish. Especially in the early 1760s, the “maverick council” within the EIC managed to build a broad coalition made up of Indian, Arab, Chinese, and Armenian merchants and bankers; the Indian manufacturers whose products the company servants and their commercial allies sold in Indian and other Asian markets; and, most crucially, the Mughal emperor Shah Alam II in Delhi himself. To overcome the crisis of authority in Bengal, the maverick council sought to place the province under the direct authority of emperor Shah Alam II. Such a move would accomplish, the council believed, a second Glorious Revolution, laying the foundation for a new Mughal empire of liberty, a natural partner to a liberal British polity. In such an empire, both the Hanoverian and the Timurid “crowns” would represent a new revolutionary sovereignty, so that there could arise no question of divided allegiances.[4]

Portrait of John Johnstone of the “maverick council,” Betty Johnstone, and Miss Wedderburn. Artist: Sir Henry Raeburn (1756-1823)

During the years 1761-65, the maverick council and its allies tried valiantly to actualize their anti-monopolistic project. In the end, it was only the contingent defeat of liberalism in Britain, and the victory of a neo-Tory coalition in the 1764 EIC elections in London that turned the tide against them. This alliance between the monopoly interests within the company and the neo-Tories in Britain led by Robert Clive and George Grenville (also well-known for his imposition of stamp duties on the Atlantic colonies in 1765), had very different ideas about the future position of Bengal within the British empire. Instead of marching the EIC army to Delhi and proclaiming Shah Alam II as the emperor, the neo-Tories withdrew into Bengal in 1765, but not before they had acquired the diwani (the right to collect land revenue)for Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. With an extractive and illiberal empire thus established, a systematic assault on all ties between Asian and British free traders was begun. At the same time, the revenue collected in Bengal was used to pay for the EIC’s own procurement of manufactures from the province. The hopes for a radically open-ended commercial society were thereby quashed, and Bengal ended up paying for its own exports.

In spite of a slew of illiberal reforms between 1765 and 1773, however, the impulses towards free trade did not die a meek death. In fact, people found innovative ways of making their demands heard. From the mid-1770s up to the Charter Act of 1813, conflicts over the establishment of “prejudicial” markets, complaints from weavers and merchants against excessive duties, as well as disputes between the EIC and Indian merchants were ubiquitous. Although the existence of such conflicts is acknowledged by social and economic historians —see, for example, the works by Rajat Datta and Tilottama Mukherjee—there is no comprehensive interpretation of their normative content and implications. I do not believe it is possible, as Sudipta Sen does, to reduce the multiple claims made by a variety of stakeholders during this period to a one-dimensional narrative about the imposition of “European” principles of “free trade” on an unwilling colony.

Nevertheless, based on my own preliminary research in the colonial archive, I can confidently insist on two points. First, that the claims and counter-claims made in many legal cases of the period indicate that the company-state had a hard time finding a balance between demands for commercial freedoms from below, the right of the state to revenue, and the privileges that persons of status in Bengal hoped to enjoy. The need for maintaining such a balance arose because expansive commercialization, which pre-dated British rule, had made it increasingly difficult to keep the market subordinate to prevailing structures of civic and political authority. Even more striking is the fact that sophisticated political-economic arguments, such as the distinction between rent and market taxes, were used by those opposing the barriers to entry created by the colonial state and local figures of authority. Although Indian free traders were unsuccessful in winning concessions more often than not, they were sometimes able to force the EIC to accept that no real justifications for its nepotism and extractive policies could be found. In other words, political-economic arguments were adopted and used in Bengal neither because they had been imposed from outside, nor because indigenous elites in the early nineteenth century mimicked their colonial rulers, but because people in Bengal found an object for political economy in their own commercial aspirations and in the barriers that such aspirations came up against.[5]

A social history of the conflictual rather than consensual market culture in eighteenth-century Bengal is thus possible and necessary, but yet to be fully written. If attempted, such a history shall allow for a better grasp of the social – and very often the ‘subaltern’ – origins of the articulate ‘elite’ liberalism that emerged in the early nineteenth century. To undertake such an attempt, however, historians need to move beyond well-entrenched nationalist myths about eighteenth-century Bengal, and to concede that demands for commercial liberties were expressive of deeply felt aspirations for a more liberal and just institutional order.

[1] British Library, IOR/P/1/28: Calcutta Public Proceedings (August 11 and 19, 1755), 297, 323-324, 409.

[2] Spencer Leonard, “A Fit of Absence of Mind? Illiberal Imperialism and the Founding of British India, 1757-1776.” PhD. Dissertation, University of Chicago, 2010, 137.

[3] Leonard, “A Fit of Absence of Mind?” and James M. Vaughn, The Politics of Empire at the Accession of George III: The East India Company and the Crisis and Transformation of Britain’s Imperial State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019).

[4] Leonard, “A Fit of Absence of Mind?” 18.

[5] The relevant EIC records include, but perhaps are not limited to, the “sayer” (anglicized version of sair) and “customs” proceedings of the Board of Revenue, the “commercial” proceedings of the Board of Trade, as well as the general proceedings of the Bengal Revenue Council and the Calcutta Committee of Revenue. These are housed partly in the British Library in London, and partly in the West Bengal State Archives in Kolkata.

Anirban Karak is a doctoral student of South Asian history at New York University, where he is exploring the evolving relationship between commerce and ethical norms in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Bengal. His overarching research interest lies in bridging the gap between traditional histories of capitalism as the history of European ascendancy, and specifically South Asian Histories. Anirban has published essays on the history of the English Premier League in the Review of Radical Political Economics, on the relationship between Indian Political Economy and state planning in Modern Asian Studies, and on the implications of revisionist Hegel scholarship for historiography in Mediations. He also has an article forthcoming in Critical Historical Studies on the possibility of a dialogue between heterodox economics and the new histories of capitalism. He can be reached at

Featured Image: A Thoroughfare in Calcutta, c. 1846, via British Library. Digitized image from “The History of China & India, pictorial and descriptive [With plates and maps.]” by Julia Corner. London: 1846.

Intellectual 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. 

Intellectual history

“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.

Think Piece

Towards an Intellectual History of Modern Poverty

by guest contributor Tejas Parasher


Picture 1In Chapter 3 of The History Manifesto, David Armitage and Jo Guldi support historians’ increasing willingness to engage with topics generally left to economists. Whereas the almost total dominance of game-theoretic modelling in economics has led to abstract explanations of events in terms of market principles, history, with its greater attention to ruptures and continuities of context and its “apprehension of multiple causality,” can push against overly reductionist stories of socio-economic problems (The History Manifesto, 87). Citing Thomas Piketty’s Capital as a possible example, Armitage and Guldi propose a longue-durée approach to the past that, by empirically documenting the evolution of a phenomenon (say, income inequality or land reform) over time, can disclose context-specific factors and patterns that economic models generally elide.

In this blog post, I ask what intellectual history in particular might have to gain (and contribute) by following Armitage and Guldi’s provocation and taking on a topic that Western academia has almost totally ceded to economics since the 1970s: the study of global poverty. Extreme or mass poverty in the Global South is a well-worn term in the literature on cosmopolitan justice, development economics, global governance, and foreign policy. Across economists like Jeffrey Sachs, Paul Collier, Abhijit Banerjee, and Esther Duflo, poverty is usually invoked as a sign of institutional failure—domestic or international—and a problem to be solved through aid or the reform of market governance. I want to suggest here that the contemporary dominance of economic analysis has foreclosed other approaches to mass poverty in the twentieth century. These are discourses that global intellectual history is uniquely able to excavate.

Picture 2
Delegates at the London Round Table Conferences (1930-1932) on constitutional reform, representation, and voting in British India. Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Sept. 14 1931.

To illustrate my point, I want to turn to a common trope I have found while researching political thought in colonial India. Between approximately 1929-30 and 1950, the Indian National Congress and other organizations fighting for self-determination began to demand the introduction of universal adult franchise in British South Asia. The colony had seen very limited elections at the provincial level since 1892. Through a successive series of acts in 1909, 1919, and 1935, the British Government gradually widened the powers of legislatures with native representation, while keeping the electorate limited according to property ownership and income. In its report to Parliament in 1919, the Indian Franchise Committee under Lord Southborough emphasized that the ‘intelligence’ and ‘political education’ required for modern elections necessitated a strict property qualification (especially in a mostly rural country like India).

Against this background, extending rights to vote and hold office to laborers and the landless poor was anti-imperial both in the immediate sense of challenging British constitutional provisions and, more generally, in inverting the philosophy of the colonial state. Dipesh Chakrabarty has accurately and evocatively described the nationalist demand for universal suffrage as a gesture of “abolishing the imaginary waiting room of history” to which Indians had been consigned by modern European thought (Provincalizing Europe, 9). Indian demands for the adult franchise were almost always articulated with reference to the country’s economic condition. The poor, it was said, needed to directly participate in politics so that the state which governed them could adequately represent their interests.

M.K. Gandhi (1869-1948) began making such arguments in support of adult franchise soon after he gained leadership of the Indian independence movement around 1919. His ideal of a decentralized village-based democracy (panchayati raj) sought to address the deep socio-economic inequality of colonial society by bringing the rural poor into decision-making processes. Under the Gandhian program, fully participatory local village councils would combine legislative, judicial, and executive functions. As Karuna Mantena has noted in her recent study of Gandhi’s theory of the state, panchayati raj based on universal suffrage was seen to empower the poor by giving them an institutional mechanism to guard against the agendas of urban elites and landed rural classes.

Through the 1930s and 1940s, most demands for extending suffrage to the poor shared Gandhi’s premise. Even when leaders fundamentally disagreed with Gandhi’s idealization of village self-rule, they similarly considered the power to vote and hold office as a crucial safeguard against further economic vulnerability. In the Constitution of Free India he proposed in 1944, Manabendra Nath Roy (1887-1954), the ex-Communist leader of the Radical Democratic Party, argued for full enfranchisement and participatory local government on essentially defensive grounds, to protect “workers, employees, and peasants” from privileged interests (Constitution of Free India, 12).

By far one of the most sophisticated analyses of the problem of poverty for Indian politics during these decades came from B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956), a jurist, anti-caste leader, and the main drafter of the Constitution of independent India in 1950. Ambedkar had been a vocal advocate for removing property, income, and literacy qualifications for voting and holding office since 1919, when he testified before Lord Southborough’s committee. As independence became increasingly likely from the 1930s, Ambedkar’s fundamental concern was to ensure that the poorest, landless castes of India had constitutional protections to vote and to represent themselves as separate groups in the legislature. Writing to the Simon Commission for constitutional reform in 1928, Ambedkar saw direct participation of the poor as the only way to forestall the rise of a postcolonial oligarchy: “the poorer the individual the greater the necessity of enfranchising him…. If the welfare of the worker is to be guaranteed from being menaced by the owners, the terms of their associated life must be constantly resettled. But this can hardly be done unless the franchise is dissociated from property and extended to all propertyless adults” (“Franchise,” 66).

During the height of the Indian independence movement in the 1930s and 1940s, there was thus an acute awareness of mass poverty as a key problem confronted by modern politics outside the West. Participatory democracy was in many ways the answer to an economic issue: colonialism’s creation of a large population without security of income or property, placed at the very bottom of networks of production and exchange that favored either Western Europe or a native elite. This was the population that Gandhi repeatedly described as holding onto its existence in a precarious condition of lifeless “slavery,” completely lacking any economic power. Only fundamental changes in the nature of the modern state, to make it accessible to those who had been constructed as objects of expert rule and as backward outliers to productivity and prosperity, could return dignity to the poor.

Picture 3
File photo from the 1952 general election, the first conducted with universal adult suffrage. Photo No. 21791a (Jan. 1952). Photo Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. of India.

My intention in briefly reconstructing Indian debates around giving suffrage, self-representation, and engaged citizenship to some of the most vulnerable and powerless people in the world is straightforward: attempts to address the effects of inequality in the Global South through the vote and local democracy rather than exclusively through international governance and economic reconstruction need to have a central place in any story we tell about twentieth-century poverty. Before they were taken up in the literature on efficient economic institutions and the rhetoric of international aid and development in the early 1950s (a shift usefully analyzed by anthropologists like Akhil Gupta and Arturo Escobar), colonial narratives about Africa, Latin America, and Asia as regions of intractable, large-scale poverty, famine, and market failure informed the political thought of anti-imperial democracy. The idea that existing economic conditions in India were problematic and deeply unjust was the basis of giving greater political power to the poor. A global conceptual history of ‘mass poverty’ in the twentieth century can therefore situate popular Third World movements that sought to increase the agency of the poor alongside more familiar, and more hegemonic, projects of Western humanitarianism.

This brings me back to my earlier point about what we might gain by re-thinking, with The History Manifesto, the relationship between intellectual history and economics. Once we start to trace how the categories and variables deployed in economic analysis emerged and changed over time, and how they were interpreted and practiced in a wide range of historical contexts, we can access dimensions of these concepts that may be completely absent from economic modeling. On the specific question of global poverty, an intellectual history that documents how the concept travelled between Third World thought, social movements, and global governance might give us theories of poverty alleviation that entail much more than simply distributive justice and resource allocation. This would be a form of intellectual history committed, as Armitage and Guldi put it, to “speaking back” to the “mythologies” of economics by expanding the timeframes and theoretical traditions which inform the discipline’s methods (The History Manifesto, 81-85).

Tejas Parasher is a PhD candidate in political theory at the University of Chicago. His research interests are in the history of political thought, comparative political theory, and global intellectual history, especially on questions of state-building, decolonization, and market governance in the mid-twentieth century, with a regional focus on South Asia. His dissertation examines the rise of redistribution as a discourse of government and economic policy in India through the 1940s. He also writes more broadly on issues of socio-economic inequality in democratic and constitutional theory, human rights, and the history of political thought.

Think Piece

Prophetic Medicine in the Indian Yūnānī Tradition

by guest contributor Deborah Schlein

When Greek medical texts were transmitted and translated in the ʿAbbasid capital of Baghdad in the ninth and tenth centuries, they paved the way for original Arabic medical sources which built off Greek humoral theory (the four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile; in Arabic: dam, balgham, ṣafrāʾ, and sawdāʾ). The most famous of these sources is Ibn Sīnā’s (d. 1037) Qānūn, Latinized to Avicenna’s Canon. The Qānūn is often cited as the foundation of what became known as Yūnānī Ṭibb, or Greek medicine, hearkening back to its use of Greek humoral theory as the basis of aetiology, diagnosis, and treatment. With the movement and transmission of texts such as the Qānūn, the study and practice of Yūnānī Ṭibb flourished and adapted to new surroundings.

While Yūnānī medicine has a long history in the Islamic world, popular medicine also drew enthusiastically on other traditions. Practices included the use of amulets, local knowledge of flora and their medicinal properties, prayer, and al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī, or Prophetic medicine. This last is characterized by the use of folk remedies, medical traditions cited in the Qur’an, and, most notably, the use of medical ḥadīth, or sayings of the Prophet Muḥammad, which were collected in book form.

Both al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī and Yūnānī Ṭibb had a large following in the Islamic world, and still do to this day. India is a perfect example of the staying power of these kinds of medicine. When Yūnānī arrived in South Asia, scholars and intellectuals fleeing the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century brought with them medical knowledge based on Arabic sources, beginning a medical tradition which would adapt and thrive from the period of the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1516) into the modern day. Knowledge of al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī also accompanied these scholars to India. Today, Yūnānī colleges are supported by the Indian government, and medical practice in the region is a mixture of the traditions that flourished there, including Yūnānī, Ayurveda, al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī, and allopathy (often called Western medicine).

Yet, too often, the medical traditions are discussed separately, without mention of the ways in which they influenced one another, particularly in regard to Yūnānī‘s adoption of treatments from al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī. Even a cursory glance at the sources, however, can tell a reader how these medical traditions interacted and shaped each other over the centuries. A study of Yūnānī manuscripts and their reception gives a clearer picture of that mix of Yūnānī Ṭibb and al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī during such earlier periods as the Mughal empire, showing that the different bodies of knowledge in fact interacted.

One way to better understand the reception of these texts and the interactions of these medical traditions is to study the marginal notations in the premodern manuscripts. These notes are a window into the thoughts of the readers themselves: they refer to other medical sources, describe prescriptions the readers used and knew to be beneficial, and relate the realities of the medical traditions in practice. One single manuscript can have marginal notations with references to Galen, Ibn Sīnā, and the Prophet Muḥammad, all concerned, for example, with the best remedy for toothache. These notes, therefore, tell us a great deal about the usage and understanding of the text at hand.

The major medical encyclopedia of Najīb al-Dīn al-Samarqandī (d. 1222), al-Asbāb wa alʿ-ʿAlāmāt (The Causes and the Symptoms), and its attendant commentaries follow Yūnānī medical theory. Copies of both the commentaries and the original work number in the hundreds in the Indian manuscript collections, not far behind Ibn Sīnā’s Qānūn and its commentaries. Al-Samarqandī’s sources come from medical greats such as al-Rāzī (d. 925), al-Majūsī (d. 994), and, of course, Ibn Sīnā, but unlike the five-volume medical compendium that is the Qānūn, al-Samarqandī’s al-Asbāb wa al-ʿAlāmāt is a handbook of medical diagnoses and treatments that was meant for personal use, to be referred to and utilized in practice. Other medical scholars, such as Nafīs b. ʿIwad al-Kirmānī (flourished 1437) and Muḥammad Akbar Arzānī (flourished 1700) took up the text and wrote major commentaries on it, in Arabic and Persian respectively. I now turn to an Indian manuscript of al-Kirmānī’s Sharḥ [commentary of] al-Asbāb wa alʿ-ʿAlāmāt in an effort to shine light on the interactions of Yūnānī Ṭibb and al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī.

Al-Kirmānī dedicated this Sharḥ to his patron, the Timurid ruler Ulugh Beg, in whose royal court he was a physician. Copies of the Sharḥ can be found all over India, and are even more common in the region than al-Samarqandī’s original text, upon which the commentary is based. The Raza Library in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh holds six manuscripts of al-Kirmānī’s Sharḥ al-Asbāb wa alʿ-ʿAlāmāt, ranging in date from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries and covering the transition of power from the Mughals to the British Raj. One particular manuscript, No. 3999 (Raza Library, Acc. No. 4195 M), is an eighteenth-century copy of al-Kirmānī’s Sharḥ, and its margins are littered with explanations, prescriptions, and references to other medical sources, mostly in Arabic. While some notes offer quotes from Galen or Ibn Sīnā, others refer to the works of al-Samarqandī himself. What makes this manuscript important to the study of Yūnānī and Prophetic medicine’s interactions, however, are the many notations citing early Islamic and, in some cases, pre-Islamic medical advice.

The margins of fourteen folios exhibit references to the Prophet’s advice and actions in the realm of medical practice. These various ḥadīth are reported by a total of twelve different companions and members of the Prophet’s family, and they showcase Muḥammad’s own knowledge of the region’s flora and their medical benefits, as well as the traditional folk medicine of the Arabian peninsula. For example, the mid-point of al-Kirmānī’s Sharḥ advocates the use of medicaments to rid the body of excess fluid to relieve dhāt al-janb, or pleurisy, which is an inflammation of the tissue lining the lungs and the chest cavity. The marginal note on this page relates the report of Zayd b. Arqam, a companion of the Prophet, who says that Muḥammad named zayt (oil) and wars (memecylon tinctorium, a Yemenite dye-yielding plant) as treatment for pleurisy (MS. No. 3999, f. 166b). Similarly, while al-Kirmānī explains al-Samarqandī’s definition of kulf, or freckles, as localized changes of color in the face to shades of black or red, the ḥadīth states that Umm Salama, one of the wives of Muḥammad, related that the Prophet spoke of the use of wars (seemingly, a common medicament at the time) to coat the affected areas of the face in order to counteract these spots (MS. No. 3999, f. 336a). Here, these marginalia serve to underscore the accuracy of the lessons of the text’s author, but they also give more specificity to how the ailment should be treated.

One additional notation is worth noting because it predates Islam: it is attributed to Luqmān the Ḥakīm (literally, wise man), a pre-Islamic sage who is mentioned in the Qur’an. His treatments (Elaj-e-Lokmani, or “treatment of Lokman”) are still practiced today in an orally-transmitted medical tradition in Eastern India, particularly Bengal. Luqmān’s medical advice, like the ḥadīth of the Prophet, recalls the medicine practiced in Arabia at the time. The notation before the text begins prescribes a treatment using gharghara (a gargle) and julāb (julep, a fruit- or petal-infused drink) for problems originating in the stomach (f. 1a, MS 3999) and is written in Persian. The Arabic note following it describes the above treatment’s source, denoting Luqmān the Ḥakīm as its originator. This reference to a pre-Islamic sage’s medical advice brings to the fore the Arabian medicine upon which al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī is based. These references reveal the thoughts of the manuscript’s reader, and force the scholar to question the boxes to which these medical traditions have often been assigned.

It is clear that the early Arab medicine described by the Prophet, and practiced before and during his lifetime, was very much alive and influential throughout the time of Yūnānī medical manuscript production and study in India. The treatments explained in al-Kirmani’s Sharḥ must have reminded the reader of the Prophet’s own medical advice. He may have written these thoughts down as a memory aide, for future readers of the text, or to underscore the benefits of these remedies. Whatever the reasoning behind these notations, the margins of this particular Yūnānī manuscript show that there was an awareness of al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī in the study of Yūnānī Ṭibb, and the two were not at all mutually exclusive.

Deborah Schlein is a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. She is currently pursuing archival research in India with the support of a Fulbright-Nehru grant.