top of page
  • Writer's pictureProf. Thomas R. Metcalf

Writing the History of the Raj (1960-2020s) | Thomas R. Metcalf

*This is a transcript of the Karwaan Distinguished Lecture delivered by Professor Thomas R. Metcalf on 03 March 2024.

I have been asked by the organizers to talk briefly about the changing currents of the historiography of the Raj over the last half-century.  Not surprisingly, a large number of assumptions and ideological commitments have shaped Indian history writing.  Among these surely one would include, for starts, the old-fashioned imperialist with its justification of empire, and the nationalist with its celebration of great heroes. I do not propose to discuss any of those, in part because by the time I came to intellectual maturity, these were all increasingly seen as constraining and unfashionable.   One might even say there existed at that time only three influential scholars of India’s history under the Raj ----- Holden Furber in the USA, Tapan Raychaudhuri at Delhi U.    Percival Spear at Cambridge.

I might start with a few words about my own training.  My starting point was as a history major at Amherst College, where I wrote my B.A. honors thesis on the Victorian liberalism of William Gladstone. Why did I care about liberalism?  Perhaps as an American and a liberal myself, I wanted to see where the ideas of liberalism had come from, and more especially how America was in the 1950s fast displacing Britain as the pre-eminent world power.  One need only think of the Suez crisis of 1956.  For this purpose it made sense to me to pursue British history in Britain itself.  Hence I joined St. Johns College, Cambridge, and was assigned Dr. Ronald Robinson as my supervisor.  Oddly, by chance, the sometime Indian prime minister Man Mohan Singh was a classmate.  Oddly the earlier studies of Victorian liberalism had paid little attention to the empire; some even considered it anti=imperial.  This was of course absurd as multiple coquests made evident.  Robinson by contrast was then engaged in an exciting revisionist study of the Victorian empire, initially announced by a path-breaking article on the “imperialism of free trade”.   The project took enduring shape with the classic 1961 volume Africa and the Victorians.  Captivated by Robinson, I decided to become an imperial historian myself. 

He suggested that, instead of Africa, his research subject, I should study the Victorian Raj in India; and he further suggested I assess the ways a changing Victorian liberalism shaped British policy in India in the aftermath of the 1857 revolt.  I told him I knew nothing about India, or the Raj, and had never heard of the 1857 uprising.  Still, at Robinson’s urging, during my year at Cambridge I embarked on a study of the ideology of empire, comparable in some ways to, but less exhaustive in its treatment than, Eric Stokes’s contemporaneous, English Utilitarians and India.   I was also caught up during my years at Cambridge by the dramatic events of the Suez crisis of 1956, when Britain and France invaded Egypt only to be forced in humiliating fashion to withdraw by the United States.  This episode saw the effective end of Britain’s empire, and the simultaneous rise, one might argue, of America as an imperial power.  My own work, as I wrote in a letter home at the height of the crisis, “does throw light on the present situation.”   After completing my PhD at Harvard, I took up a post teaching British and Indian history at the University of Wisconsin.

In both Britain and the United States, by the 1960s, the study of India was undergoing a wholesale transformation.  Above all, with the collapse of the empire, imperial history fast went out of favor.  America now required knowledge of the so-called “Third World”.  For this the lens of empire did not suffice.  Hence scholars sought, by studying such topics as rural social change and political mobilization, to make sense of the histories of former colonial societies from within and from below.  In the United States this new style of research, which informed work in the social sciences more generally, came to be known as “area studies”.   In the United States, South Asian studies were quickly caught up in and sustained by the post-Kennedy rise of America to world power.  We all know about and many of us have benefited from the language fellowships, research centers, and the like that still endure from those years.

My position at Wisconsin was among the earliest casualties of this new scholarly turn.  In 1960 Wisconsin’s newly hired African historian, Philip D. Curtin, though himself schooled in imperial history, established a graduate training program called Comparative Tropical History.  This program sought to comprehend the histories of Latin America, Africa, India, and Southeast Asia under a single rubric that would enable these formerly colonized regions to be studied together, and – most importantly -- apart from Europe.  Students were expected to master the history of one region and become knowledgeable in the others.   To introduce his new program Curtin had my appointment terminated in favor of a “properly trained” historian of India.  I taught at Madison for but one year.

The rise of “area studies” thus left me scrambling to recreate myself as a fully-fledged historian of India. From 1964 I undertook a new project, on the landed elites of northern India in the colonial era.   I took as my central concern the fate of the landed classes in the province of Oudh (Avadh), in the central Gangetic plain around Lucknow.  The British annexation of this province in 1856 provoked the uprising, as part of the mutiny-revolt of the very next year, of almost all classes of society.  The British responded to the uprising by awarding the landed chiefs, known as taluqdars, full property rights over their estates; the chiefs in turn reduced those on their estates, peasant agriculturists, formerly foot soldiers in their raja’s battles, to tenants at will.  What, I asked, did this transformation mean for the landlords?  For their tenants?  How did this contrast with the remainder of the U.P., annexed fifty years earlier, where the landlords had been largely dispossessed in favor of local village communities?  This project culminated in the publication in 1979 of my Land, Landlords, and the British Raj.

This work gave me a certain credibility as I approached tenure in the Berkeley History Department.  Still, there remained the question of language.   When I was a graduate student, modern Indian languages were not taught at either Cambridge or Harvard.  As a result neither I, nor my contemporaries, received the language and area training our successors received in organized South Asian Studies departments.  In the end, after a year’s delay while my department considered whether one could do Indian history through English language sources, I secured a permanent position at Berkeley in 1968 as an historian of India;.  I was the first person ever hired as an historian of India on the Berkeley faculty, and I initiated its South Asian graduate program.   My first student was the late, much lamented, John Richards.

In Indian history the 1970s was the hey-day of the Cambridge School.  Contesting the then-current Indian nationalist history built upon heroic figures such as Gandhi, and the great deeds of dedicated followers, the Cambridge School insisted upon the importance of local level connections, factions, and patrons in sustaining the nationalist movement.  As the school’s founder Anil Seal put in his introduction to a seminal volume, “On the unsteady base of local squabbles for spoils rested the larger political systems of India...even the Congress itself was largely built out of this rubble” (5). 

That decade also saw the more general rise of social history, and with it its iconic practitioners Natalie Davis, E. P. Thompson, and the Annales school.  This history sought to bring ordinary people into the historical narrative in place of sweeping generalizations and a fixation on kings and prime ministers.  Such works as Christopher Bayly’s Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars, and my own Land, Landlords, and the British Raj, assess the transformation of a colonial society over the course of a century.  Both works look at Indian actors -= in his case elite bankers and in mine landlords -- in their local arenas.  Both are products of the 1970s.  

It might be useful at this point to take a look at the career of Christopher Bayly.  Though a decade younger than me, he and I shared much in our careers.  We both had deep connections to Cambridge, where I studied and he taught.  We both rejected the assumptions of the Cambridge School but still worked within, for much of our careers, the new social history.  

The 1980s saw which initiated a dramatic upheaval in the writing of colonial Indian history.  As is well known, this group was a “collective”, closely tied to its primary organizer Ranajit Guha; and it insisted upon the autonomous resistance of “subaltern” classes to colonial rule.  Despite their often provocative tone, the “subalternists”, among other things, upended the way Indian history was perceived by the larger profession.  Its enthusiasts published some ten volumes, and made India no longer an obscure corner of little interest except to specialists. India now helped shape the historiography of places around the world, from Japan to Latin America.  I was never invited to join this “collective”, nor did its style of research appeal to me.  Chris Bayly also kept apart from it.

In any case something else was happening.  That something was provoked by Edward Said’s Orientalism, published in 1978.  Empire, I discovered to my delight, once again mattered.  Said’s contention that the ‘Orient’ was an artifact of European knowledge forced scholars to examine the assumptions of the colonizers – and of themselves.   As Said argued, this so-called “colonial knowledge” was of critical importance in enabling colonial rulers to justify their conquests, and to structure the systems of governance they established.  As this style of analysis grew in popularity during the 1980s it triggered an entirely new academic discipline, that of post-colonial theory, with close ties to English literature departments.  By 1990 there had even emerged the rather odd alliance of the subalternist Ranajit Guha with the literary critic Gyatri Spivak!

I never conceived of myself as a post-colonial theorist.  Yet the influence of Said was pervasive during the 1980s.   Said’s insights, as I wrote in the introduction to my 1989 book An Imperial Vision, assessing British colonial architecture in India, “stimulated and helped shape my study of the ways the British created knowledge of, and represented, India and their Raj in architecture” (256). British buildings in India, that is, could be read as a kind of “text” in much the same way as literary and official documents.   I much enjoyed researching this book and traveling India in search of “Indo-Saracenic” buildings.  

The Saidian “turn” also provoked me to revisit my earlier work on liberalism and empire. In my contribution to the New Cambridge History, dissenting from those theorists who claimed that liberalism was implicated with imperialism from the very beginning, I sought in the Ideologies of the Raj to construct a liberalism that possessed its own integrity, combined with a critical analysis of its transformation in the decades after 1858 – from a Macaulay-ite vision of an India remade in Britain’s image to the “creation of difference”.  I refused to see only an enduring hypocrisy in which the ideals of liberalism were made to be no more than mere “alibis of empire”.  The volume has been surprisingly successful, and even after twenty years is widely consulted.

During the 1990s imperial history – quickly dubbed the “new” imperial history -- took root and flourished, with volumes even on how the “empire came home” to Britain.  India of course was central to much of this scholarship, and several of my then Berkeley graduate students,  now mostly based not in California but in schools in the Northeast, --I am happy to let them enjoy the winter snows -- have made major contributions to the history of colonial India.  In the millennial decade that followed historians increasingly endeavored to widen their geographical horizons – in a historiography that placed nations and empires both in larger comparative contexts.  One exciting new approach has focused on oceanic rather than land-based linkages across the globe.  Initially this involved primarily study of the so-called “Atlantic World”.  But Indian Ocean studies have increasingly claimed their own space.  My Imperial Connections: India in the Indian Ocean Arena endeavored to examine how India became something of the center of a large imperial web extending from Singapore to Malaya during the later nineteenth century with laborers, soldiers, lawyers, and traders, together with distinctive ideas about law and governance, spreading out from the subcontinent.  Sugata’s Distant Horizons, published the same year, shares much the same focus.  Now we also have Sunil Amrith’s evocative history of the migrations across the Bay of Bengal.

Some may have noticed in this extended account of India’s historiography over the last fifty years one influential school of history writing that I have neglected to mention – that of women’s history, and feminism more generally.  At a conference in Gail’s honor such an omission surely requires explanation.   Inasmuch as I have known Gail since we both lived in Lucknow during 1970 --  not to mention another women’s history pioneer, Barbara Ramusack, whom I have known ever longer and who attended my and Barbara’s wedding in Delhi, it would be absurd to ignore the lasting contributions these scholars made in opening up this new field of history.   Gail’s two early edited volumes – Separate Worlds, and The Extended Family (1980, & 1982) – give an indication of the excitement the women’s movement generated during the 1970s.  Each volume contains some dozen articles, with references to further papers delivered at a number of conferences during the preceding decade.   It may be significant to note that of the 22 articles contained in these two volumes only one was written by a male author, and that was our very own David Gilmartin.   Clearly, one must acknowledge, this scholarship was embedded in the political agenda of the larger women’s movement.   This does not any means invalidate it.  Rather, one might say it served a dual purpose.

A small incident might illustrate the point.  About 1992 I was invited to attend a conference organized by Barbara Ramusack on “imperialism and feminism” at Cincinnati.   I was pleased to attend as I had just written a section on “gender and empire” for my forthcoming Ideologies of the Raj.   Researching this work, I had come to realize that, while studies of women’s activities helped fill a huge gap in the historical literature, gender was a crucial analytical concept – right up there with race and class – that helped structure all kinds of larger patterns of history and thought.   At the conference, to my surprise, I discovered, that apart from Barney Cohn, already well into his long unfortunate decline, I was the only male present.  This was a novel experience for me - though not an unpleasant one!  Toward the end of the session, a lively discussion arose about what projects “We as feminists” might next undertake as a group. Somewhat awkwardly, I interjected that “I am not a feminist”.  The organizers hastened to reassure me that I was, but some distance still remained between myself and the others.  Two years later, when I offered a graduate seminar on gender and empire at Berkeley, again I discovered that the students who enrolled were all female.  Much fortunately has changed in the twenty years since that encounter.   The young scholars I met at Cincinnati are now eminent professors, whose work lies at the center of what Indian history has become, and studies of women and gender, no longer so rigidly sex-coded, belong to all of us

I hope these remarks will help us think about history – where it has been, where it is, and where it might travel in the future.  A career in history offers so much in the way of excitement, and of learning, 

242 views0 comments


bottom of page