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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Making Useful Knowledge : : British Naturalists in Colonial India, 1784-1820

  • Author(s): Menon, Minakshi
  • et al.

This dissertation explores the making of natural historical knowledge in late-eighteenth and early- nineteenth-century British India. In answering its organizing question, "What was colonial natural history as a form of knowledge?" I argue that colonial natural history and the East India Company state were co- constitutive. Natural history was an expression of the manner in which the Company's commercial interests shaped the organization of governance. It was a hybrid way of knowing that brought together different types of knowledge, European and indigenous, in the service of the Company state; and it was useful knowledge, directed to specific contexts of use without necessarily affecting natural knowledge making in Europe. The dissertation draws on the literatures and methodologies of two sub-disciplines, history of science and South Asian history, as well as on research in science studies to explore the knowledge- making strategies of three colonial savants, the noted Orientalist Sir William Jones (1746-1794), the surveyor- medic Francis Buchanan (1762-1829), and the botanist-medic William Roxburgh (1751-1815), to illustrate in detail how such hybrid knowledge was produced. It places the histories of Britain and India within a unitary epistemological field to show continuities between the sensibilist epistemology of eighteenth-century European savants such as John Locke and Denis Diderot and the Orientalist natural knowledge-making of Sir William Jones; and between the pedagogical strategies followed by the natural historian, Dr. John Walker (1731-1803), at the University of Edinburgh's Medical School, and the development of the colonial survey as a form of knowledge by his student Francis Buchanan. It also explores how the entanglement of East India Company business and the private trade of its employees assisted the emergence of the colonial state's institutions, including its natural knowledge-making institutions. It does this through an examination of the Indian career of William Roxburgh and his patron, the Madras free merchant, Andrew Ross. I argue that building the colonial state in India was a collaborative enterprise between Company officials and private merchants, involving clientage relations between merchant grandees and Company functionaries lower down the hierarchy. This produced state authority as a patchwork of limited local relations, while simultaneously enabling the making of the "interested" natural knowledge on which Company profits and private fortunes were built

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