South Asian Studies Brown Bag Series: A View from Arcot: Envisioning Empire in Eighteenth Century South Asia - Tiraana Bains

Event time: 
Thursday, September 28, 2017 - 12:00pm to 1:30pm
Henry R. Luce Hall (LUCE), Room 203 See map
34 Hillhouse Avenue
New Haven, CT 06511
Event description: 

Nawab Muhammad Ali Khan Walajah (r. 1749-1795), the Nawab of Arcot, was among the most inveterate composers of lengthy missives, in Persian and in translation, to a range of British figures. It may hardly be surprising that he wrote to prominent East India Company officials such as Robert Clive, whose own rise to prominence is 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 correspondence with prominent figures in metropolitan Britain, including Lord North, Lord Shelburne, and King George III. These letters certainly reveal the shrewd political machinations of the Nawab. But they also demonstrate that the Nawab was not merely acting pragmatically; he was also deploying his knowledge of British political formations to put forward a particular vision of what British imperium in South Asia could resemble, not to mention the reconfiguration of Mughal imperium. While it may be argued that it was only to be expected that the Nawab’s communications with various British figures featured expressions of loyalty and a commitment to a British political system, Persian texts produced in Arcot for a very different audience also articulated similar claims and visions. Indeed, chronicles commissioned by the Nawab included lengthy excursions into the lineage and succession of English kings and bore other telltale signs of growing knowledge about the British, as well as the growing power of the British. In the course of this paper and presentation, I will make the case that debates and contests over British state formation and empire did not simply feature the voices of British men in London and Calcutta. The British state and empire, constituted as they were of distinct entities such as the Company, the King, and Parliament, were the cynosure of multiple eyes in different places. Agents of South Asian politics and Mughal successors such as the Nawab of Arcot were well aware of the contours of British politics and did not view themselves as external to the transactions and negotiations transforming the British presence in South Asia. Thus, they sought to play their own part in the making and remaking of empire.