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Interview with Tiraana Bains

Posted by rdaily under Interview | Tags: imperialism, South Asia | 0 Comments


Tiraana Bains, PhD candidate at Yale and winner of a 2019 NACBS Dissertation Travel Grant, shares some of her research on “Making and Debating Imperial Transitions in South Asia, circa 1756-1799”

Muhammad Ali Khan Walajah (r. 1749-1795), the Nawab of Arcot, a principality on the southeast coast of the Indian subcontinent, was an inveterate composer of lengthy missives, in Persian and in translation, to a range of British figures. It may hardly be surprising that he wrote to prominent English East India Company officials such as Robert Clive, whose own rise to prominence was inextricable from his successful seizure of Arcot from the French-supported Chanda Sahib. What might appear to be more surprising is that the Nawab did not restrict his petitions, complaints, and diplomatic overtures to members of the Company hierarchy in South Asia. Rather, he actively undermined the Company’s claims to authority in the East Indies by maintaining correspondences with prominent figures in metropolitan Britain, including Lord North, Lord Shelburne, and George III. These letters reveal the shrewd political machinations of the Nawab. Equally, they demonstrate that the Nawab was not merely acting pragmatically; he was also deploying his knowledge of British political institutions to put forward a particular vision of what British imperium in South Asia could resemble, not to mention the reconfiguration of Mughal imperium. The Nawab of Arcot not only wrote letters; he also dispatched carefully selected gifts. If one were to visit the British Library, the Victoria and Albert Museum, or the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, one would find the painted likeness of the Nawab, portraits being one of the many objects he regularly gifted his addressees. The range of the Nawab’s correspondents, the substance of his letters and indeed, the spread of the archives and museums in which one might find the Nawab’s imprint all point to the crux of my dissertation: that the formation of a British imperial state in eighteenth century South Asia was shaped by multiple actors, British and South Asian, many of whom were located outside the political centers of London and Calcutta.

With the support of the NACBS Travel Grant, I have been able to study the ways in which diverse eighteenth century actors, from the Nawab of Arcot to humble salt workers, articulated and debated their own conceptions of British imperial rule in South Asia. Through the process of tracing both mundane and more momentous musings on how imperial authority ought to operate, I was struck anew by the sheer variety of materials housed across multiple British archives that could be brought to bear on such a study of imperial state formation. While the India Office Records held by the British Library are undoubtedly the most exhaustive collection for any study of the East India Company (EIC) and British governance in South Asia, even relatively smaller, seemingly provincial archives and libraries possess a wealth of material associated with the evolving British presence in eighteenth century South Asia. The Nawab of Arcot’s letters and papers, sometimes accompanied by the original seal, have found their way into multiple collections and archives, from Edinburgh to Maidstone. Pamphlets, notices, songs, analyses of faux epic poems, and caricatures in many such archives attest to everyday discussions of a British state-in-formation in South Asia.

The pervasive presence of materials from and about South Asia demonstrates that the subject of “East India” politics was a dominant and pressing concern for many Britons in the second half of the eighteenth century. It did not simply erupt into prominence in moments of spectacle such as the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings. The lives and livelihoods of tradesman and merchants were inextricably linked to the commercial policies and currents governing the East India trade. Indeed, the clamor over the right and freedom to trade with the East Indies had long framed debates about the future of the EIC across the British Empire, from England itself to Ireland and North America. Moreover, politicians and parliamentarians of all stripes recognized that the transformation of British governance in South Asia was not a matter extraneous to the fortunes of the British Isles. In other words, they believed and often argued that there could be no neat boundary drawn between ostensibly local or domestic affairs and imperial or foreign affairs. Accordingly, in the midst of especially quarrelsome parliamentary sessions dedicated to debate over so called “East India bills,” multiple parliamentarians made the case that the remaking of British governance in South Asia was a matter of far-reaching constitutional importance.

Researching plans and schemes for the government of India, some more fanciful than others, I discovered interlinked discussions surrounding other imperial spaces. The desk of William Pitt the Younger was covered with intelligence and proposals from agents in Ireland, Jamaica, and India. Such volumes of official correspondence that swerve swiftly between discussions of trade in the Indian ocean and the question of abolishing slavery in the Atlantic world encompass the possibilities for studying the making, unmaking, and remaking of the British Empire in the late eighteenth century as a truly interconnected and global phenomenon. I am grateful for the NACBS’s generosity in facilitating this opportunity to visit multiple archives in Britain and work my way through this array of diverse materials.

Portrait of Nawab Muhammad Ali Khan Walajah by George Willison. Displayed in the Asia and Africa Studies Reading Room at the British Library, London. Photo Credit: British Library

Tiraana Bains


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