A Medley of Sources
TCA Achintya
Archives Of Empire Volume 1: From East India Company To The Suez Canal by Barbara Harlow and Mia Carter Primus Books, 2018, 802 pp., 1995
July 2018, volume 42, No 7

Archives of Empire is predominantly a collection of various documents from the 19th century, from the 19th century, of sources, mostly collated in excerpt form, ranging widely across genres and subject materials. Thus, there are speeches, essays and letters of notable 19th century personae, government documents, the odd legislation, even chapters from novels and books from the era, are presented as excerpts of varying sizes. This review engages with the first of a four-volume set. First published in 2003, it has found its way to India, the dominant subject of its attention, fifteen years later.

The book is divided into 15 sections. It starts with a section intended to serve as a general overview of the period covered by the volume, entitled ‘Company to Canal 1757-1869’. From there we go to sections titled ‘Oriental Despotism’, onto the Impeachment of Warren Hastings,

Tipu Sultan, Orientalism, the Uprising of 1857, and then abruptly to North Africa, with a focus on the Suez and its construction, culminating in the Arabi Uprising, and a closing chapter on Pilgrims and Travellers’. Each section and at times some sources begins with a short introduction.

From the outset, it is easy to see that the book is unlikely to appeal to a wide audience though no doubt put together to paint certain pictures and ideas about the institutions of Company Rule and the British Empire in India and North Africa. It lacks a cohesive narrative or set of narratives that one can read through. For a few, such as new scholars in historical studies, particularly of the Modern Indian era, this can be an extremely valuable resource, combining a surprising array of resources in interesting groupings. Some of its sources are in fact relatively hard to track down, even today, long after this book was first published, and in the era of digitized archives and the mature internet. The book also provides an interesting mix of documents. Thus, we have an excerpt from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, next to a section of Disraeli’s work, followed by a small snippet out of a period dictionary. To the researcher looking for inspiration and material to ponder, this can be an extremely helpful set of readings, widening his or her horizons onto what can constitute a source for research. It reminds the scholar that one need not only consider official sources and documents as a source of information on the past, nor does one need to be bound by the works and writings of politically or ideologically critical thinkers. Disraeli, Hegel and Marx therefore sit comfortably alongside sections of imperial legislation, novel chapters and a dictionary.

The documentary collection can also arguably be of relevance and help to a more experienced scholar of the period. In some ways, it brings the archive to the reader, and though only short excerpts of it, it certainly has value as a quick reference guide.

The division of chapters in the book is also somewhat eclectic. The topics range from engaging with concrete events or individuals in time, such as the Hastings impeachment or Tipu Sultan, to historical social phenomenon such as Sati or the Thugees, onto more abstract formulations such as Orientalism. The selecting of the chapters is arguably a little strange. It remains unclear, for instance, why the editors chose a chapter on Tipu Sultan, whereas the Marathas and the Mughal state receive almost no attention in the volume; or why sections engaging with the impeachment of Warren Hastings and Tipu Sultan sit between sections on Oriental Despotism and Orientalism. Similarly, the jump from the Great Revolt of 1857 straight to the Suez is also somewhat mysterious. The transitions don’t always make sense. These shortcomings and questions can leave the reader somewhat confused, especially since there is no clearly defined and overarching thesis to begin with.

These mysteries of selection and omission also carry forward into individual chapters. The section on 1857 helpfully begins with a very short chronology of events and a profile of major figures involved in the mutiny. This section is not a period document but is compiled by the editors, who do not appear to find critical and relevant persons such as Bahadur Shah II Zafar or Begum Hazrat Mahal worthy of attention. It is equally interesting to note that in the chronology of events listed, the capture of Delhi is noted just as ‘King of Delhi surrenders to Hodson’. This odd characterization of, and silence on, the siege of Delhi, and indeed the choice of title for its ruler—‘King of Delhi’ rather than ‘Mughal Emperor’, seems to represent the extent of influence of the imperial way of looking at this history on the editors. The editors have certainly tried not to reproduce imperial narratives or perspectives, and yet, to some extent Eurocentric biases seem to persist. Thus, one wonders why Alfred Tennyson and Rudyard Kipling feature in the narratives on 1857, alongside Karl Marx, yet major Indian perspectives such as those of Ghalib, Vishnubhat Godse, or even later ideologues such as Savarkar, remain notably absent.  With only a smattering of non-European voices, one gets the impression throughout that there is a distinct hierarchy of importance of voices, and that the European voice is regarded by the editors as fundamentally more relevant to understanding imperialism than that of the natives under imperial control. If the idea is to showcase the varied character of the archives of empire, it is surely also worth considering the voices which existed outside the domain of Europe, and in the territories which constituted the provinces and colonies of the Empire in question.

These shortcomings aside, the book can become a valuable resource for students and scholars researching modern Indian history. Not only at an individual level, but arguably also as a classroom tool, allowing the student to gain a glimpse into the complexities of historical source material.


TCA Achintya is an MPhil Scholar at the Department of History, University of Delhi, Delhi.

In some ways, it brings the archive to the reader, and though only short excerpts of it, it certainly has value as a quick reference guide.


Review Details

Book Name: Archives Of Empire Volume 1: From East India Company To The Suez Canal
Reviewer name: TCA Achintya
Author name: Barbara Harlow and Mia Carter
Book Year: 2018
Publisher Name: Primus Books
Book Price: 1995
Book Pages: 802