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Economies, Moralities, and State Formations in British Colonial India

  • Author(s): Wilson, Nicholas Hoover
  • Advisor(s): Swidler, Ann
  • et al.
Abstract

How is modern power organized? My dissertation explores this question by probing how state, society, and economy became ethically autonomous spheres for colonial administrators. In other words, I ask how officials shifted justifications for their behavior from referring to their immediate peers to the abstract imperatives of markets, the social, and sovereignty.

Corruption scandals were a key cause of this shift. Endemic to the English East India Trading Company's administration in India since its foundation, these scandals generally involved administrative squabbles escalating into appeals to authorities in London. However, while the scandals had a consistent form, the Seven Years War decisively changed their content. The war eroded the insulation protecting the Company's London authorities from Parliament and put a host of new actors who had little knowledge of Indian affairs in a position to influence the Company's behavior. Consequently, when Company officials in India appealed to London, they used the abstract moral language of state, society, and economy to appeal to these new actors for assistance. Moreover, these newly abstract justifications were then used by the succeeding class of senior Company administrators as resources to shape reforms of the Colonial State in India.

The analysis in this dissertation is based on archival research at the India Office Records of the British Library in London and at Cambridge University. It analyzes and compares scandals in each of the Company's three major administrative units in India. In Bengal, the ejection of William Bolts and the impeachment of Warren Hastings generated arguments supporting the state's sovereignty. In the 1790s, Charles Cornwallis deployed these arguments to reform administrative conduct and ratify the development of an extremely powerful state apparatus. In Madras, meanwhile, the Nawab of Arcot's debts scandal precipitated the wholesale reformation of that region's administration in the 1790s and 1800s. Whereas Bengal's development ratified the state, in Madras administrative conflict centered on notions of defending Indian society. Accordingly, Madras officials justified their policy decisions by invoking "society" as an autonomous sphere with its own moral logics. Finally, in Bombay in the 1810s, the impeachment and ejection of a senior civil servant for alleged corruption led to debates in which free market principles were invoked as the foundation for administrative action.

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