AAS Annual Meeting

South Asia Session 27

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Session 27: Colonial Bengal and Transnational History

Organizer: Prakash Kumar, Pennsylvania State University, USA

Discussant: Peter L. Schmitthenner, Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University, USA

Was colonial Bengal a bounded space historically? Did its linkages transcend the single British metropolis-colony axis? This panel argues that imperial and colonial enclosures did not preclude other formative influences on historical developments in Bengal in their social, economic, and knowledge dimensions. Metropolitan and colonial frameworks ensconced spaces within which diasporic planters, savants and naturalists, colonial state officials, and economic entrepreneurs with interest in global trade engaged in the building of modernity that corresponded with developments over dispersed territories. This process was evident in the migration and movement of actors, ideas, and institutions that altogether introduced new types of knowledge into the colonial society. In making that argument four presenters discuss concrete historical projects studying labor relations, flow of expertise, commodity production, and environmental imagination between late eighteenth and mid twentieth century. Prakash Kumar’s paper analyzes the influence of a transnational science on the domains of plantations, agriculture, institutions, and colonialism in South Asia. Iftekhar Iqbal provides an account of trans-regional interactions around Northwestern China, Northeastern India, Bengal and Burma with regard to environmental imagination and policies. Tariq Ali studies the global connections between jute produced in Bengal and its consumption in Western Europe and northern America in the era of decolonization. Willem van Schendel rounds off the panel by highlighting the usefulness of a comparative approach in the program for a transnational history. His study analyzes labor relations on colonial plantations in colonial Java and Bengal to bring into relief the enduring influence of pre-existing indigenous social structures.

Science in Diaspora: Mobility and Colonial Knowledge
Prakash Kumar, Pennsylvania State University, USA

This paper spotlights the journey of modular texts and savants and naturalists between the west and the Indian subcontinent to explore the nature of knowledge and science on the indigo plantations in colonial Bengal in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The fundamental assertion is that between the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries the modern culture of indigo developed at a number of sites in the Caribbean, Spanish Central America, South Carolina, and Bengal. Colonialists and locals in these different spaces contributed to the development of the art and science of indigo cultivation and the manufacture of the blue dye whose knowledge and practice ebbed and flowed with diaporas of planters and dispersal of knowledge that was already made concrete in manuals and encyclopedias. Such a framework not only restores parity to developments in South Asia and spotlights key contributions made in this era, but also enables a fuller understanding of the structures that connected South Asia with the world. The materialities of such linkages have been ignored in current accounts of indigo history which only stress the connections of the colony with the British metropolis. In that context this study illustrates that modernity in colonial South was not only tethered on the agents and ideologies within the realm of colonial knowledge, but were also hinged on actors and ideas that moved across wider historical spaces.

Peripheral Centers: Rivers, Railways and Spatial Engagements in Northeastern South Asia and Southwestern China, 1853-1905
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This paper examines the interactive temporality that occurred through spatial experiences flowing outside the core of the ‘national’ or ‘colonial’. While such scrutiny is increasingly gaining currency in the academia, the regions of Northeastern South Asia (NESA) and Southwestern China (SWC), which include Bengal, Assam, Myanmar and Yunnan, remain understudied. Using primary sources such as policy papers, travelogues and oral stories, this paper aims to uncover the ways in which multiple flows of people, ideas and commodities from Yunnan towards India and from Bengal towards China created a ‘third space’ in these ecologically contiguous regions, standing as the meeting points of South Asia, East Asia and Southeast Asia, which defied the gravity of engagement between the British metropolis and its colonies. Such spatial engagement were both induced by and contributed to different shades of ideas and actions relating to the rivers and railways of the region. A key thrust of the paper is to appreciate how in this ‘third space’ of trans-regional exchanges rivers and railways were imagined, appropriated or debated.

The Envelope of Global Trade: Bengali Jute in the Era of Decolonization
Tariq O. Ali, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, USA

For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, jute sacks were the premier packaging material of the world, the envelope of global trade, and the packaging material of choice especially in the long-distance trade in bulk commodities. The raw fibres were cultivated exclusively in the riverine eastern half of Bengal, and the mills to the north of Calcutta manufactured more than half of the world’s jute goods. The bulk of these goods were consumed by other commodity producing regions of the globe, to pack the cotton, sugar, grains, coffee, and so forth that these regions exported to the major centres of consumption in western Europe and northern America. The flows of jute goods, I argue, forged cross-colonial relations between Bengal and the commodity producing regions of the Americas, Africa and Asia. Specifically, I explore how these connections were transformed and reformulated during the 1950s and 1960s, during the era of decolonization. I look at how material changes in the global economy, the discourses and ideologies of post-colonial nation-states and the rise of new international institutions affected connections created by the movements of jute goods between Bengal and other primary commodity producing regions after independence and partition in 1947. I argue that decolonization entailed a broad transformation of the transnational connections forged by jute, from a cross-colonial relationship mediated and governed by the imperial centre in London to an inter-statal relationship based on the exigencies and desires of postcolonial nation-states.

Embedding Indigo in Two Colonized Societies: Java and Bengal
Willem van Schendel, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands

For centuries, colonial systems in the Americas produced indigo, a major blue dyestuff, for the expanding European market. These systems were in crisis around 1800 and European powers sought to create indigo industries in their Asian colonies. This paper compares the success of British attempts to embed indigo factories in rural Bengal (British India) and Dutch attempts to do the same in rural Java (Netherlands East Indies). Both used the slave-based Caribbean indigo factory as their model but had to adapt it to fit local circumstances in which labour had to be attracted or coerced in different ways. This resulted in two tension-ridden but quite different Asian indigo industries. By comparing these, the paper seeks to show a) how deeply colonial manipulation of Asian societies depended on pre-existing rural social structures, and b) how the historiography of indigo in Asia has privileged field labour (peasant production of indigo plants) over factory labour (processing indigo plants to produce dye).