“For Britain itself, an imperial collector writ large, as for individual collectors, collecting was a means of acquiring power, status and a new self-image.” (p.114).
Maya Jasanoff’s article Collectors of Empire: Objects, Conquests and Imperial Self- Fashioning is an excellent treatise on the complex relations between European individuals in the British East India Company (BEI) and Indian culture and society in the 18th and 19th centuries, focusing on the diverse ways in which British East India Company officials and high-status Indian men alike used collecting to self-fashion.
While highlighting different examples of cross-cultural collecting in India, Jasanoff does not shy away from discussing the ugly side of this topic, including the plundering of Indian cities and appropriation of objects by troops of the British East India Company.
A primary focus of the article is a discussion of cross-cultural collecting in the context of (mostly male) individual collectors in India who were on the ‘margins’ of European society from a surprisingly diverse range of backgrounds and used collecting as a means to craft a new identity for themselves. At first glance, this prominent theme of the article seemed questionable – why are the stories of these men important? However much interest or appreciation they felt toward Indian culture, they were still members of the British East India Company and therefore consciously part of its imperial machinations. But Jasanoff makes a very thought-provoking point, which turns the focus of these men’s stories into a refreshing perspective on the history of the British East India Company:
“The imperial collectors described here neither can nor should be divorced from the larger mechanisms of imperial expansion — war, trade, power — which brought them to India to begin with. But their stories supplement the macrohistorical narrative and round it out, in important ways.” (p.111)
Delving further into the subject, Jasanoff shows examples of how Europeans adapted and integrated themselves into Indian culture in varied ways:
“Europeans in eighteenth-century India, for instance, often referred to Indians as “blacks” and stereotyped them in all sorts of pejorative ways. Yet they also frequently called themselves ‘Indians’; many lived with Indian women, raised mixed-race children, learned Indian languages, wore Indian clothes, ate Indian food and probably never expected to see their European birthplaces again. By exploring, collecting and classifying foreign cultures, imperial collectors both bridged and defined boundaries between Europeans and non- Europeans.” (pp.112-113)
Jasanoff also discusses figures on the opposite side of this imperial collecting, including Asaf ud Daula, the Nawab of Lucknow, who amassed “what was probably the largest European art collection in India.”(p.116) and Tipu Sultan, the Indian-Muslim ruler of the Mysore Kingdom of Southern India. Following his death at the Siege of Seringapatam, a crucial moment in the BEI’s expansion, a riot of looting by Company troops followed, who appropriated thousands of objects, which Jasanoff meticulously analysed.
This critical analysis of objects and how they relate to the topics discussed is a distinct feature of the article and is particularly pertinent given the subject matter and eras, where biased accounts were common as we see in Jasanoff’s discussion about “Tipu’s tiger”, which was later used as a piece of distorted imperial propaganda by Britain after the Siege of Seringapatam. Jasanoff also discusses how Tipu Sultan’s alliance with Britain’s classic enemy – France – was also turned into another piece of biased propaganda. The way Jasanoff examines how the late 18th – early 19th century Anglo-French wars impacted India (and conversely, how India impacted the Anglo-French wars) completely flips the paradigm on this conflict and enrichens historical understanding of the world at this time.
In conclusion, Maya Jasanoff’s perspective of cross-cultural collecting in all its forms during Company Rule in India adds deeply to the understanding of relations between the British East India Company and Indian culture and society, shedding light on the stories of both individuals and wider global contexts. It is a fantastic read for anyone interested in this topic!
All page numbers in this post refer to this article:
Maya Jasanoff, ‘Collectors of Empire: Objects, Conquests and Imperial Self- Fashioning’, Past and Present, 184:1 (2004), pp.109-35.